“Shale Gas and Fracking” – an assessment

The CofE briefing “Shale Gas and Fracking”

The recent Briefing Paper on Shale Gas and Fracking (“the briefing”) was commissioned by the  CofE’s Mission and Public Affairs Council (MPA) and Environment Working Group “to help understand a ‘live’, and contentious, issue about which there are many strong feelings on different sides, both in the church and in the wider community“.

Welcomed by United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), the trade body representing  the onshore oil and gas industry in the UK, the initial media perceptions were that the Church of England was tentatively backing fracking – a stance which is at odds with Christian Aid, Operation Noah, other “Christian environmentalists”, the Green Party, and some within the local groups potentially affected.

Nevertheless, the Church has come a long way since its early uncertain forays into this area, (see Fracking, the Facts and the Church) and whilst there are certain areas within the brief that would benefit from further consideration, it remains a significant step forward in this contentious topic.

Overview

The briefing is described as a  “factual scan of the main issues around communities, planning, and the environment, in the context of UK energy policy and the UK’s commitment to carbon reduction targets under the COP21 agreement”. The paper, which is being offered to others in the church and beyond as “a resource for on-going, evidence-based, discussion“:

  • identifies possible impacts of shale gas exploration and fracking for the Church of England, including dioceses, parishes and the Church Commissioners;
  • suggests a role for dioceses and parishes in working for greater understanding and trust;
  • informs MPA’s public affairs work on evidence-based ethics, assisting a planned response to shale gas developments; and
  • contributes to the Ethical Investment Advisory Group’s work on Extractive Industries.

It uses a range of recent information within the public domain, particularly the July 2016 report of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), The compatibility of UK onshore petroleum with meeting the UK’s carbon budgetsThis called a wide range of highly qualified independent experts to give evidence on greenhouse gas emissions from fracking and the impact on carbon budgets. The Church’s Press Release on the briefing states that the key to whether or not fracking is an acceptable practice turns on three points:

  • the place of shale gas within a transitional energy policy committed to a low carbon economy;
  • the adequacy and robustness of the regulatory regime under which it is conducted; and
  • the robustness of local planning and decision-making processes.

The Guardian quotes Malcolm Brown, Head of MPA:“this is not a policy paper…[i]t is a briefing paper to outline key issues and to highlight that fracking is not morally different from any other extractive industry – it’s about context”; the article notes that the briefing contained several caveats in its conditional support.

Contemporary material on fracking

Contemporary with the Church of England document, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy re-issued an updated version of Guidance on fracking: developing shale gas in the UK (13 January). More importantly, on 4 January, the House of Commons Library re-issued an updated version of its Briefing Paper 6073, Shale gas and fracking which addresses two important aspects not included in the briefing:

  • the controversial Infrastructure Act 2015, detailing the prior consultation and passage through the House. The Act includes provisions to streamline the underground access regime, including horizontal or lateral drilling, and make it easier for companies to drill for shale gas; and
  • the role of carbon capture and storage and the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee inquiry Environmental Risks of Fracking (January 2015). Joan Walley MP, chair of the Committee stated:

“[u]ltimately, fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely“, [See today’s report from the National Audit Office]

The EAC called for a moratorium in fracking, and doubted whether shale gas could be regarded as a ‘transitional’ or ‘bridging’ fuel (on the basis of displacing coal-fired energy generation).

National Investing Bodies (NIBs) and Ethical Investment Advisory Group (EIAG)

The NIBs announced the adoption and implementation of a new ethical policy on climate change and investment on 1 May 2015; this had been recommended to the NIBs by the EIAG following a comprehensive review which was launched in January 2013 and welcomed by General Synod in February 2014. Climate change and investment policy were again considered by Synod in July 2015, and overwhelming support was given to the Church’s approach. At the time we noted that although reports of the Synod session suggest that shale gas was not included in the measures considered, the NIB/EIAG Climate Change Policy states:

“4.4.2 … The National Investing Bodies are already exposed to a variety of oil and gas extraction processes (including fracking, coal seam methane, oil sands) through their investments. In addition, the Church Commissioners may be approached about fracking on their land holdings…

4.4.4 Fracking is a particularly controversial form of fossil fuel extraction. If climate change alone is considered, then the gas produced by fracking may well have a part to play in reducing emissions during a period of transition to a lower carbon economy. However, the EIAG recognises that there are many other issues that need to be considered in making decisions about whether or not fracking should proceed. These include environmental impacts (e.g. on water bodies, on land stability), social impacts (e.g. changing local economic patterns) and stakeholder views, in particular those of local communities directly affected by such operations. Some of these issues reflect the relative novelty of fracking as a method of gas extraction. Over time, it is to be expected that increased experience – here in the UK and elsewhere – will give us a better understanding of the risks and benefits of fracking and enable a better informed debate on the investment and the ethical implications of fracking as a method of gas extraction.

While not the primary focus of this policy, the EIAG offered two comments on fracking.

  • exploration and related activities to determine the size of potential reserves does not create any presumption that any such reserves should or will be exploited. The ethical questions around exploration and any later extraction and exploitation are different and need to be treated separately.
  • any decisions to extract gas through the use of fracking methods should be driven by the scientific research, should take account of the life-cycle climate change impacts of gas from fracking in comparison to other fossil fuels, should take due account of all relevant risks and opportunities (including those for employment in areas of social deprivation), should comply with all relevant legislation, should take account of the company’s track record, and should recognise the role that the planning process plays in ensuring that the range of stakeholder views, including those of local churches and communities, are heard.”

Comment

The content of the briefing should have held few surprises since it aligns with the NIBs/EIAG climate change policy which was welcomed by General Synod in July 2015. As John Kemp of Reuters observed:

“If the Church’s advisory panel had come out against fracking, the decision would have been widely cited by lobbying groups active on climate issues as well as local issues to oppose further drilling and fracturing. Instead its cautious endorsement, subject to conditions, is in line with an evolving consensus that does not oppose fracking in principle but is likely to remain wary in practice for the time being.”

A high degree of reliance is placed upon the CCC report which is described as: “a good example of a balanced and well-informed analysis of the risks, mitigations and strategic issues involved in fracking”. However, the briefing would have had a different emphasis had it taken into consideration the more negative report of the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee.

Whilst of interest to “armchair environmentalists”, the briefing will be of practical importance to three groups:

  • those within the Church who are directly involved in decisions relating to fracking, i.e. 4.4.2 of the NIB/EIAG Climate Change Policy, above.
  • others following the lead of/influenced by the Church Commissioners in relation to ethical investment;
  • people within areas where test drilling is expected to take place.

With regard to the latter, a total of 4 wells has gone into the shale layer in the last five years but only one – Preese Hall, Lancashire, in 2011 – has been fracked. The briefing notes that the place of fracking within a comprehensive energy policy is far from conclusive and any large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK – if it happens at all – is likely to be “some years away” (at least 10-15 years according to the EAC).

However, Appendix 1 lists 9 areas currently licenced for shale gas exploration and extraction as at October 2016, and there are plans to submit 5 further planning applications by end 2017 and 25 more in 2018. It will be at these sites that opposition to the Church’s tentative support of fracking is likely to be greatest.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Shale Gas and Fracking” – an assessment" in Law & Religion UK, 20 January 2017, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2017/01/20/shale-gas-and-fracking-an-assessment/

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