Another view on the moratorium

Here on Refracktion we are always happy to explore points of view. Local author Alan Tootill has been a commentator on fracking for many years and his in depth analysis has been immensely helpful to many of us over the years. Here he offers his thoughts on recent events.

Reaction to the new fracking moratorium is mixed. The distrust of politicians and in particular the Tories under Johnson is so deep that on the one hand, many believe this to be just an election ruse, and the moratorium will be overturned as soon as the Tories are back in power.

Others believe that the moratorium sounds the death knell for fracking, mainly on the principle that fracking without government support is uneconomic and not viable, and that investor confidence will collapse. This view has led Natalie Bennett, or Baroness Bennett as we should now call her, today (3rd Nov) to say “make no mistake, this is the end of fracking in England.” Also, of course, the government, having been reported in many papers as imposing a ban, would be regarded by the public with further distrust and disdain if it made a further U-turn.

Which view is right?

On paper, the moratorium looks vulnerable. At Preston New Road there was an effective moratorium already in place before the weekend. Fracking was stopped after the 26th August magnitude 2.9 earthquake, felt by many residents and reportedly damaging property as far away as St Annes. The OGA announced “Operations will remain suspended while the OGA gathers data from this and other recent seismic events and then considers carefully whether or not the hydraulic fracturing operations, mitigations and assumptions set out in the operator’s Hydraulic Fracture Plan continue to be appropriate to manage the risk of induced seismicity at the Preston New Road site.

The OGA has not yet published data relating to that “event” and their moratorium was (and is) still in place, when the 2nd November government announcement came. For Preston New Road nothing has changed. Since the fracking halt, Cuadrilla has resumed operations to flow test and flare gas at the PNR site, resulting in what many feel is the continuing risk to environment and health of noxious gases and substances. The new moratorium will not change anything.

Where, of course, the major difference comes, is that the moratorium is now extended to all England (not exactly all the UK, as the press reported). And the header to the government’s press release was “Government ends support for fracking in England on the basis of new scientific analysis, published today.” Also significant in the decision was the statement that no new changes to the planning system for fracking (eg making it come under NSIP government control) were now to be pursued.

For those who read the press headlines of a “ban” now in place, Andrea Leadsom’s later in the day 2nd November media appearances proved more pessimistic. She stressed the “decision based on science” argument, which led her to praise fracking as a prospective gas supply, and add the corollary that the moratorium would end when new scientific evidence was presented.

I have always argued that fracking is a political, not a technical issue. I would argue that the moratorium decision was based on political grounds, not on the science. Firstly, the Oil and Gas Authority report which was released at the same time as the government announcement, reads to my eyes as not supporting a view that with fracking “it is not possible with current technology to accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking”. This it seems, being nowhere I can find in the report, is an interpretation designed to support the press release rather than a scientific and factual interpretation of the OGA report, which consists of a number of very technical papers and a rather ambiguous summary.

Significantly, the four technical reports were all produced on data from the 2018 Cuadrilla activity on PR1z well (and scientific papers) and took no account of the August 2019 “big” seismic event on the PNR2 well.

The OGA summary ends –

“PNR2 data should now be used to test and improve all four studies with work on maximum magnitude prediction given high priority. Further work on correlating seismic susceptibility to local geological characteristics could be undertaken. The current reports should be treated as interim.”

When before have we seen the government acting on merely an interim report to make a major policy change? I am led to the conclusion that the government’s moratorium is based on not the scientific evidence, but the public’s ever-decreasing support for fracking, the sustained pressure of opposition to fracking, the argument linking fracking with climate change, resulting for support for fracking being seen as a loss leader in a new General Election.

If the decision to impose a moratorium is not based on the science, one may conclude that a decision to remove the moratorium will not be made on scientific evidence, despite what Andrea Leadsom said. And we must bear in my mind that nowhere has the government addressed other fracking issues, such as environmental damage, risk to health, threat to climate change policy and many other threats fracking poses which have driven opposition.

Natalie Bennett is perfectly right in serenading those who have worked tirelessly at PNR, out in all weathers, putting themselves at risk of police persecution and arrest, and in claiming they have been the ones making a major impact on policy, and this new moratorium in particular. They do indeed deserve to take a well-deserved rest. And those of us who are just working from keyboards owe it to them to keep working to monitor the changing tide of politics and raise the alert when the signs turn to worse.

Others have pointed out this weekend that a fracking moratorium will not cover (because of the definition of fracking in the 2015 Infrastructure Act) other unconventional oil and gas extraction procedures. And not, of course, conventional oil and gas production. I would add to that list offshore Oil and Gas production, which under the Infrastructure Act has a legal duty to maximise economic production.

This is valid, and not only an issue for the Tories. Labour and LibDems have vowed to ban fracking. But have they included abolishing the Infrastructure Act definition of fracking to include other unconventional techniques (acid stimulation is the new scapegoat there)? I don’t think so. In fact the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, due to union pressure, actually included the policy to “safeguard the offshore oil and gas industry”.

This has to change, if we are to reduce dependence on Oil and Gas. Not just the Tories, but other parties, must review all their policies, rather than using fracking as an electoral greenwash. Fracking is a symptom of a wider disease, not a disease itself. The Green Party is the only one so far which has stepped up to the plate. Which is why a vote for the Green Party is the only one which will ever satisfy me.

You may also like...