The government has told a fracking firm where to go. Kind of.

Claire Perry and the Cuadrilla logo
Steve Topple

A Freedom of Information request (FOI) has revealed a curious letter from a government minister to a fracking firm. On the surface, it seems to show the government not bending to the firm’s demands. But all is probably not as it seems.

Fracking: contention in Lancashire

Fracking company Cuadrilla has been courting controversy for quite a while now. It’s been the subject of countless demos, political criticism and campaigns. But at the centre of the row is the site at Preston New Road in Lancashire.

In July 2018, the government officially gave Cuadrilla the go-ahead to start extracting shale gas. But the decision drew protests from locals. Then, a judge jailed three activists (whom another judge promptly freed). But after a court casebad weather and protests stopped it, Cuadrilla finally began work on 15 October. This led to more protests. Then, in late 2018, dozens of earthquakes occurred near to the site, just as Cuadrilla began to frack. Government regulations meant the company repeatedly had to stop work. This was due to the strength of the tremors.

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It is these regulations which have caused the upset between the government and Cuadrilla.

Do as you’re told!

As The Canary previously reported, Cuadrilla’s CEO Frances Egan told the Times in October 2018 that he wanted the government to relax the rules around earthquakes.

Currently, regulations are based on a traffic-light system. When an earthquake over a magnitude 0.5 occurs, the fracking firm involved has to stop work for at least 18 hours:

Government fracking traffic light system

Cuadrilla has stopped work several times, due to the magnitude of the tremors breaching the limit. So, Egan said:

We appreciate the requirement for a conservative approach and will follow the traffic light system. That said, we consider that a red light limit of circa 2.0ML [local magnitude] would provide more than adequate assurance that no harm or damage could arise from fracking.

He pointed to other countries where the magnitude limit was higher. But both scientists and campaigners reacted angrily to Egan’s comments. Now, though, it has come to light that so did energy minister Claire Perry.

Not communicating?

As Greenpeace’s investigative website Unearthed reported, Perry wrote to Egan in November about his comments. She said:

I have always been clear that any shale developments must be safe and environmentally sound. I note that your Hydraulic Fracture Plan was developed and reviewed over several months with reference to existing regulations, including the traffic light system and at no point did you communicate that it would not be possible to proceed without a change in regulations.

The Government believes the current system is fit for purpose and has no intention of altering it.

Hang on…

Short, sharp shrift. But reading between the lines, Perry’s apparent ticking off of Egan is probably less about Cuadrilla and more about discontent with fracking in her own party.

As The Canary has previously reported, some Conservative MPs are openly opposed to fracking in their constituencies. So Perry could be making concessions to quieten dissent in her own ranks.

Cuadrilla says…

Meanwhile, Cuadrilla told The Canary:

We’re obviously aware of the letter which was received in November and the Government’s position on the traffic light system. We have worked within the system during recent hydraulic fracturing at Preston New Road and as a result have a unique data set of information and operating experience. We are now flow testing the well that has been fractured and are continuing operations as planned.

Campaigners say…

But local residents and campaigners welcome Perry’s move. A spokesperson for campaign group Frack Free Lancashire told The Canary:

By the minister of state for clean growth and energy writing to Cuadrilla and reaffirming that the government has no intention of altering the current seismic traffic light system, we get a sense of a possible shift in support for shale. Up to now, fracking speculators have got their own way on all ‘asks’. It’s refreshing to see – so far – that the government has not kowtowed to the latest in the fracking industry’s endless demands, especially since Cuadrilla was instrumental in agreeing to the existing seismic regulations in the first place.

It’s high time the minister lived up to her job title, and focused on the ‘clean growth’ part of it. We are in a climate crisis and removing the emphasis on more fossil fuel exploration should be a priority – life as we know it depends on a rapid shift in energy policy on a global level.

Interesting times

Of course, Perry’s failure to budge changes little regarding Cuadrilla’s operations at present. As The Canary has documented, people’s concerns over fracking are overarching. Moreover, the specific research surrounding small fracking tremors leading to larger ones is concerning.

There is the question of how Cuadrilla will move forward at Preston New Road in the face of earthquakes. Because in 2013, it abandoned a previous exploratory site, a move some put down to earthquakes there.

But what it does represent is the government somewhat hardening its approach to the industry; albeit quite possibly out of personal interest rather than for people or planet. Either way, it’s a small victory in the relentless battle against this dirty industry.

Featured image via Bloomberg – YouTube and Cuadrilla Resources – YouTube

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