Church clarification(s) on fracking

Our post Fracking, the Facts and the Church concluded with the suggestion that in view of the heightened profile of fracking within the national and international media, the Church of England should give urgent thought to the development of an agreed position on fracking.  Interest in this technology has been further escalated by: the high-profile protests in Balcombe, West Sussex this weekend; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, (RSPB), announcing in opposition to fracking at this site and in Lancashire; and media confusion on the Church’s Mineral Registration Programme

As a consequence, on Friday the Church issued two statements: a Clarification on suggested links with hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”; and a Statement from Church of England on fracking.  On the former, we noted:

“[w]ithin the UK, the rights to certain minerals – oil, gas, coal, gold and silver – are owned by the State, not by individuals or organizations such as the Church. It is therefore incorrect to describe that the actions of the Church as a “land grab” related to its rights to natural gas which might be obtained by fracking. The Church’s Mineral Registration Programme is a response to the need to register mineral and other rights under the Land Registration Act 2002 before midnight on 12 October 2013.”

In common with any landowner, the Church has an interest in determining who might have an access to minerals beneath its land, but this is not the subject of the current registration initiatives.  However, the rights to natural gas beneath that land lie with the Crown [1]  and these are administered through the Crown Estate, here.

The Church Statement on fracking was made by Philip Fletcher, Chair of the Church of England’s group on Mission and Public Affairs,and refers to earlier statements by the Diocese of Blackburn and from the Bishop of Chichester.  It envisages the role of the Church

“[a]s with much of wider society [it] will continue debating the issue around fracking, seeking to balance theological, economic, environmental and societal issues.

However,

“[it] has no official policy either for or against hydraulic fracturing (known as ‘fracking’). However there is a danger of viewing fracking through a single issue lens and ignoring the wider considerations.

There are a number of balancing considerations which need to be taken into account when coming to a view. Fuel poverty is an increasingly urgent issue for many in society – the impact on energy bills is felt most by the least well off. Blanket opposition to further exploration for new sources of fuel fails to take into account those who suffer most when resources are scarce.”

The Statement continues by stressing the importance of proper controls in relation to any form of fracking and cites operations at Furzey Island, adjacent to Brownsea Island, as a long-standing example of oil production in a deeply sensitive area.  Accepting that all carbon based fuels contribute to global warming and are less than ideal in terms of climate change, it notes

“gas is less damaging than coal and to preclude properly managed technical development is to risk denying ourselves more important, less polluting and less costly options than the energy sources on which we currently rely,”

and concludes

“[f]uel poverty, the creation of jobs, energy self-sufficiency and the development of technology that may reduce the impact of more polluting fuels are just some of the factors which need to be taken into account in any debate alongside the concern we all have about the impact of fossil fuels upon climate change.”

Comment

The Church’s Statement is to be welcomed, particularly its balanced approach to burning carbon-based fuels and inclusion of the assessment in the joint report of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering “Shale gas extraction in the UK: a review of hydraulic fracturing, June 2012. The assessment of a future role for fracking is complex, but in addition to the Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering report, other useful summaries readers might find useful are: Lord Smith’s review of possible future options for energy production, including fracking; and the Commons Library Standard Note, SN/SC/6073 Shale gas and fracking, which was updated last week, and contains a number of links to other reviews and sources of information.  Alternative points of view are put forward on the web site of the pressure group Refracktion.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Philip Fletcher echoes our criticism of the Blackburn Diocese’s comments about shale gas being more toxic than coal, remarking: “I don’t think that is at all sound scientifically,” and warns of “there is a real danger of distorting the arguments through protest”, citing the example of “the completely misguided attack on the MMR jab,” suggesting that “what often happens in a polarised debate [is that] you have those who are very strongly for or against something and the evidence gets lost in the middle”.

As a consequence of this approach, the Church of England does not at present have an official policy either for or against fracking, but this does not equate to having no views on the critical aspects of the technology: it has added to the debate by highlighting factors which need to be taken into account alongside concerns on the impact of fossil fuels upon climate change, including: fuel poverty; creation of jobs; energy self-sufficiency and the development of  technology that may reduce the impact of more polluting fuels.

The recent Statement is in line with the comments made by Dr Martin Warner, Bishop of Chichester, although the diocese of Blackburn has yet to comment on the criticism of its earlier statements and these need to be resolved before its planned meeting with Cuadrilla.


[1] Also gold, silver, coal and oil.  The British Geological Survey, (BGS), notes: “For landward, exploration a licence is required which grants exclusive rights to exploit for and develop oil and gas onshore within Great Britain. The rights granted by landward licences do not include any rights of access, and the licensees must also obtain any consent under current legislation, including planning permissions.”

3 thoughts on “Church clarification(s) on fracking

  1. Pingback: Religion and law round up – 18th August | Law & Religion UK

  2. The following appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 17 August. Further comment is superfluous:

    “SIR – Since 2004 the Church Commissioners have been working to register their mineral interests (report, August 16), in line with the Government’s Land Registry requirements, as any responsible landowner is doing before the end of October deadline.

    This does not create any new interests or rights and is confined to registering properly what the commissioners have in most cases owned for many years, and in some cases for centuries. There is absolutely no link with fracking.

    Carol Hawkey

    Head of Rural Asset Management
    Church Commissioners
    London SW1”

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