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January 2015: Fracking Update

Fracking Update: January 2015We have done a few fracking-specific articles since last July - vis:

- a report on the plans for the week of action last summer;

- Cllrs Trevor Fiddler and Tommy Threlfall declaring prejudicial interests on payments made to them (after two and a half years had elapsed);

- the awful mess Fylde's DMC got itself into as it wrestled with what to say to LCC about the fracking applications;

- and about the first stages of the dreadful Infrastructure Bill wending it's way through Parliament.

But we haven't done a 'general update' about fracking since last summer.

And although mainstream media are now covering fracking events quite thoroughly, we thought it was about time we did a quick round-up of some general issues and had a look forward at fracking.

This is likely to be a key week in the process.

Today sees the start of the Report Stage of the Infrastructure Bill in the House of  Commons (about 2:30 to 3:00pm we understand). There are high hopes for an amendment that would see fracking outlawed in the UK (as in Germany and France), but to be honest we can't see it making much headway.

Today also sees experts on behalf of Roseacre Residents delivering 30 minute presentations at County hall, (following in the wake of experts speaking on behalf of Plumpton residents, and  who delivered their 30 minute presentations last Friday).

Then there will be two days of four minute slots for the non-technical folk from both areas who want to have their say on the applications. We believe these will be (Preston New Road) on Wednesday 28th Jan and Roseacre on Thursday 29th Jan, and we understand that LCC are scheduled take the decisions for each site on these days.

And finally, Friday 30th January, seems to have been reserved as a sort of 'overflow' date, but that's not entirely clear.

The tricky bit is that LCC's Planning Committee *should* be deciding the planning applications that officers have recommended for refusal.

But the chances are they won't actually hear the arguments - because Cuadrilla appear to have requested a deferment of both applications to give them more time to 'mitigate' the noise and transport problems that the officers had cited as reasons for their recommendation to refuse.

This situation is developing into a mess.

Cuadrilla should have got their act together well before now, and should have already done enough to secure officer approval. (After all the job of the officers is largely to help applicants to make their scheme acceptable enough to allow it to be recommended for approval).

For whatever reason, that hasn't happened. (Usually these things are to do with cost and not wanting to spend more on amelioration than you absolutely have to, but we've no idea whether that's the reason here or not).

So (having drawn the fire from all the experts and possibly the residents at Roseacre and Plumpton and been able to gauge its strength), the decision on Cuadrilla's deferment request is likely to be the first substantial item on the agenda. If it is taken before the public presentations and it is granted, the much vaunted LCC decision-taking meeting could be over in minutes.

Quite where that leaves things we're not sure.

It the request is granted and Cuadrilla go away for a re-think, then procedurally, there may well have to be another public consultation period on their (revised) proposals. Whether that will also allow Roseacre and Plumpton residents and their experts to make further representations is not at all clear.

They may be allowed to do so. But alternatively, the presentations they are making now might be required to stand and could be allowed to evaporate into what will seem to be the mists of time when viewed from some future date in - say - three or four months.

At the very best, they're likely to be restricted to speaking to the 'new information' supplied by Cuadrilla, so all their previous arguments will have evaporated into the ether anyway.

This is not a good way to run a planning application.

LCC *could* - in theory - say 'No' and refuse the request for an adjournment, forcing Cuadrilla to submit a new application. But with LCC having had several adjournments of their own, we can't see that happening.

Like we said - It's a mess.

So we'll park it there for the moment, and have a sideways look at a few of the more general things that have happened since the Summer....

  1. Days of Action last summer
  2. New Environment Agency Chairman
  3. All that Glitters.... and the Gold Standard
  4. Managing the Flow of Information
  5. The Boys in Blue Come Calling (sort of)
  6. Commons Debate Today
  7. Ribby Hall Meeting on Wednesday

 1). THE DAYS OF ACTION  
Although we heard voices from folk we might call the 'more serious' opponents of fracking who were critical of the Anti Fracking Action Camp events and activities that took place last August, our own view was more tolerant.

Fracking March Blackpool prom 2014

We thought they caused some inconvenience for a few folk, but no-one was seriously injured. There were no petrol-bombs. No-one had to use tear-gas or water cannon and, as far as we can remember, no one has been charged and convicted of anything. (and given the draconian powers available these days, that, in itself, is a testament to the sensible policing that took place).

Fracking March Blackpool prom 2014

We thought it was closer to the activities of a traditional Rag Week - with mischief, rather than damage. The UK has a strong tradition of civil liberties  and in the 800th year since Magna Carta, those who speak against such action would do well to remember from whence we came.

Fracking March Blackpool prom 2014

We know of no other action that could have generated day after day of double page spreads in the local and national media and top slots on the local television and radio news.

It terms of raising public awareness we don't think it could have been much bettered and we salute those who upheld our civil liberty to protest, even if a few folk were inconvenienced or embarrassed in the process.

Our only gripe was with the what we thought were unreasonably tight reporting restrictions that the organisers sough to impose via restrictions in their 'Press Pack' on those who attended their events and activities. We understood why this was so, but we would not have been prepared to sign up to some of the conditions, so counterbalance didn't go to quite a lot of the events.

 


 2). NEW E.A. CHAIRMAN 
Former Culture and Media Secretary (now Lord) Chris Smith has stepped down from his Chairmanship of the Environment Agency.

It was a scheduled change, and, to be honest, we were very pleased to see him go. He was never anywhere near our list of favourite politicians, and his arrogant performance defending what we regarded as the indefensible actions of the EA in the lead up to and during the flooding crisis a year or two back was the final straw for us as far as he was concerned.

We used to have a lot of time for the Environment Agency, but we're much less happy with them now. Bloated, wasteful and incompetent are the first words that come into our minds these days, and we don't think that's going to change anytime soon. We think they've lost sight of what they are *for*.

(Readers will recall our beef about the EA not believing it was necessary to treat the drilling mud residues in the same way as the flowback water. That's one of the key reasons we moved to oppose fracking at the present time. With decisions like that no-one who understands the matter can believe it's safe, and the EA is in charge of this).

The New Chairman (not that any of this history is his fault of course) is Sir Philip Dilley. He seems to have started on a bit of a poor footing as far as fracking is concerned.

The well-known, right wing publication (joke!) 'The Guardian' said he will work three days a week on a salary of £100,000 and that until April 2014, he was the chairman of Arup, (The company that wrote the environmental reports on fracking for Cuadrilla).

The Guardian also claimed that Arup, an employee-owned company, has donated money to the 'all-party parliamentary group on unconventional oil and gas' and is an associate member of the organisation founded to "debate and explore the potential for developing" such reserves in Britain.

They also said that Sir Philip - who was recently knighted for services to engineering - also worked for at least two years on David Cameron's business advisory group that gave "regular, high level advice to the prime minister on critical business and economic issues facing the country"

Finally, the Guardian also noted that the Environment Agency will have responsibility for granting permits for fracking across the UK as part of the coalition's promised shale "revolution".

Hmmm....


 3). ALL THAT GLITTERS.... 
The Friends of the Earth published a good report called 'All that Glitters' last summer.

It poses the question 'Is the regulation of unconventional gas and oil exploration in England really ‘gold standard’? then answers it's own question by saying 'No', and by calling for a moratorium until it is.

Readers can follow this link to download a copy of 'All that Glitters'

Along with the 'Drilling Muds' issue we mentioned earlier, this document produced the second reason we moved to a position of opposing shale gas extraction at the present time.

This is the problem for us. We think the Government has a very superficial view of how control should be exercised. They have regulatory bodies by the shedload, but none of them seem to do anything thoroughly.

Isolated from everyday reality, and dealing with mind numbing numbers, Civil Servants seem to expect to do nothing more than skate over the surface of what they are supposed to do. Industry self-regulation schemes are applauded for cost savings they produce. They seem to think that for the most part you can trust 'the professionals' to do the right thing, and they only need a 'light steer'

We've just three words to say to that.

The Banking Industry

We've worked with such 'so-called' professionals, and in our experience, no-one we've met so far can be trusted to self regulate.

Readers who've been with us for a few years will know we were impressed with the position adopted by our MP Mark Menzies on this matter of regulation.

Although his party seems to be running hell for leather toward implementing Shale Gas extraction irrespective of the human and environmental cost, he has solidly maintained his position.

In 2012 he told the House of Commons "The Government do aspire to be the greenest Government ever, so, with that in mind, will the Prime Minister assure me that before any decision is taken to extract shale gas from Fylde there will be both a public consultation and the establishment of an independent body to co-ordinate a gold standard of regulation so that the environment is never compromised?"

Then on 16 July 2013 he told the House of Commons ".....The Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil must take on responsibility for ensuring that the existing regulatory bodies, namely the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency, DECC and Lancashire county council as the planning and mineral rights authority in Lancashire, work together to deliver a world-leading, gold-standard regulatory framework. It is the responsibility of the office not to become a regulator but to ensure that those that are empowered to be regulators are doing so to an exemplary standard.

I also urge the Minister to ensure that regulations are robust and are developed to ensure the highest environmental safeguards, as opposed to what is simply convenient for the industry. The focus should be on robust regulations and we should try to get away from using words such as “streamlining.” When people hear about streamlining, they interpret it as the watering down of regulations, which I am sure is not the case. Were it the case, it would not be acceptable to me......"

We've heard him say the same thing since them as well.

But sadly,  some of his colleagues are not of the same mind.

In the debate on the Infrastructure Bill in the House of Lords, several said the think we didn't we needed the 'Gold Standard'  (or even the tackier 'Gold Plated') regulation.

In Hansard (Col 44) of 10th November 2014 Labour's Lord Hollick is reported as saying "We heard from many witnesses that the current regulation of offshore and onshore gas and oil drilling in the UK is widely regarded as best in class. Four of the proposals in Amendment 113G are already covered by existing regulations or industry guidelines, and there is no need to gold-plate them and include them in the Bill."

In Col 52, the  Earl of Caithness said "....We know that environmental impact assessments are hugely important. They cover a range of other industries. However, Europe standards have been agreed on for fracking. Within those standards are certain exemptions for the small fields and for some experimental wells, but there are also restrictions. It is not a total blanket; it is a limited exemption. Why does the Labour Party want to gold plate what is already in existence and covers the whole of Europe?...."

In Col 54, Lord Donahughe says "I support my noble friend Lord Hollick in his argument that all these environmental concerns are apparently covered by existing regulations. They need to be properly implemented, which I fully support. But if there is some need for further goldplating— my noble friends Lord Hollick and Lord Lipsey mentioned that possibility—that can be pursued later."

In Col 56, Baroness Verna (who was piloting the Bill through the Lords) said "There is an ongoing issue with planning authorities taking an overly cautious approach to environmental impact assessment. To gold-plate the requirements of environmental impact assessment in this way could significantly impact upon developments such as housing"

So it looks as though the Gold Standard  we expected may not materialise.

Our MP is talking about the need for Gold Standard regulation, but his colleagues can't even manage to consider gold plating (which might make thinks look like gold when they're not really)

That's likely to cause complications for Mr Menzies, and for us all.


 4). MANAGING THE FLOW OF INFORMATION 

We were a 'party' to what we thought was a rather unsavoury suite of behaviour last autumn. it was behaviour that surprised us and opened our eyes to the conduct of a local business organisation.

It started when we went to a social gathering at someone's home and were introduced to a lively and energetic local businesswoman who has taken an interest in the fracking situation. She mentioned that Lord Browne of Maddingly (former Chief Executive of BP, now Chairman of Cuadrilla Resources) was giving a talk to a local Chamber of Commerce about his experiences in the energy sector and the potential benefits of Shale Gas to Lancashire.

She said the application form she had seen gave the charges for both members and non-members so visitors were welcome, and she was considering taking a table at the event and asked if we would like to join her. We said thank-you, we would, and popped the date in the diary.

We operate a small business in the NW and, to be honest, because the event was being organised by a business organisation, it was in that capacity that we had expected to attend.

A form requesting our business name, contact name, phone and email addresses duly arrived, which we completed and emailed to our host. But then we found ourselves embroiled in something that quickly began to feel akin to the MaCartyism witch hunts of America.

The first hint that all was not well came when our host was embarrassingly required to establish if we had "Been involved in or supported the aggravated trespass on 18th August".  We were happy to be able to say 'No' to this. (Although to be honest, we were unsure exactly what  'support' meant in this regard)

Next came an email forwarded from our host advising that "any press or media will  be turned away on the day."

By now the picture was clear to us. The picture we saw was that our host and any of her guests were not wanted.

 

This became even more clear when the next email from an official of the Chamber of Commerce to my host said "I understand that [*** my name spelt incorrectly***] is the editor or Counterbalance and as such the contents of my email stands. We have been requested that no press/media including web based is to be in attendance which we have accepted.

My host was clearly being embarrassed (not to mention made angry) by all of this and we said we would not wish to cause her any further embarrassment, so we advised we would withdraw our request to attend. (to be honest it wasn't that big a deal for us). We understand she also indicated she would not be attending.

We know of another member of the Chamber of Commerce (who is neither press, media nor activist), but was refused entry to the Lord Browne lunch, when he arrived: was subsequently ejected from the hotel in which it was being held; then asked to leave the hotel car park for heaven's sake. Yes really!

So far as we can tell (and as far as he could understand), this appeared to be because his personal views about fracking may not have co-incided with those of the organisation's officials.

Because we are not members of this ourselves we can't know whether there have been opinion surveys or votes to establish the views of the Chamber's membership on fracking. but the people that we do know who are members don't recall taking part in any though.

We leave readers for form their own impressions of such an organisation.

We've already done so.


 5). THE BOYS IN BLUE COME CALLING 
We've been a bit worried of late.

A Police Surveillance CCTV unit has been parked outside counterbalance towers for just over a week now.

Not so long ago, we recall being sent this link to a report about a journalist being hassled by the police after publishing a report on fracking. We also recalled that after our own visit to the Preston New Road site we had (so fare) not had a follow-up visit from the Boys in Blue

Readers will recall our story Fracking Squatters announcing the arrival of people who appeared to be Cuadrilla's Security people, (but who had actually declared themselves to be squatting on the land by putting up a 'Section 6' squatters notice).

We wondered if the CCTV van was gathering evidence - tapping into our broadband to see who we were sending emails to, and what websites we were visiting.

The van was parked under a tree so we thought we'd twigged it that it might be Special Branch people making themselves at home.

In the end the answer turned out to be very much less exciting. Unknown to us, next door has had a few problems with some youngsters!


 6). COMMONS DEBATE TODAY 
The Report Stage of the Infrastructure Bill is in the Commons today starting at 2:30 but likely to be 3pm.

There are lots of proposed amendments (that were not successful in the Lords or in the Commons Committee Stage) which are being resurrected. We see no reason why the Government will listen today when it has refused to make changes several times before, but we live in hope.

At least two of the amendments are new. One is to remove all the clauses that we so object to - those giving companies the legal right to trespass under your land. This would include letting them drill and put (and leave) various substances under our homes (the lateral drills can go for 3km - that's roughly one-and-a-half miles). Our vehement objection to this is not to do with fracking, it's to do with changing the precedent in English common law.

The other new amendment is more interesting. The cross party 'Environmental Audit Committee' in Parliament has just said that drilling for shale gas is ‘incompatible with our climate change targets and could pose significant localised environmental risks to public health’.

Eight members of the Committee will attempt to amend the Infrastructure Bill this afternoon / evening to have fracking in the UK stopped altogether (as France and Germany have already done).

We can't see it coming off, but we're glad someone is at least trying to stop the steamroller before it's too late. One the trespass legislation is changed, there will be no going back, and we believe it will affect all sorts of unforeseen things in the future.


 7). RIBBY HALL EVENT ON WEDNESDAY 
We don't exactly understand why, but those in the know are tipping us the "nudge nudge, wink wink", that a meeting at Ribby Hall on Wednesday starting at 6:30 could be significant as far as fracking is concerned.

From what we've been able to pick up, the MD of Ribby Hall Paul Harrison is said to be worried about the impact of shale gas on the Fylde, the leisure and tourism industry and the health and wellbeing of the families who live here.

He is hosting the event at 6.30 on Wednesday 28th for Ribby Hall staff and anyone else who would be interested in coming along. We understand Mike Hill will be speaking at the meeting and we're told it is open to all but it may be worth checking if you plan to go.

If we can get there, we'll bring readers our take on the meeting.

 


 

 ~~~~~~~~ DAVE'LL FIX IT ~~~~~~~~

Three articles ago, we introduced this panel so show how, in his enthusiasm to support fracking, David Cameron took the first small steps on a slippery slope. He began with saying how important he thinks fracking is, but he's now changing UK law to make it easier for frackers to operate. We expect to record and publish each of his steps as we publish future fracking articles.

However, the list has already grown too big to include it in the web page, so it's now downloadable as a PDF file. So if you want to see some of the legal and financial sidesteps Government had made to help and encourage fracking in the UK - follow this link to 'Dave'll Fix It'

Dated:     26 January 2015


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