Fracking protesters 'hold Environment Agency to account'

A protest outside the Environment Agency highlighted the need for impartial and immediate action on fracking.

We call on the Environment Agency and its workers to observe this case, to act with impartiality and to take a tougher stance against a reckless fracking industry which threatens our air quality, our water quality and our climate. 

We were among 50 demonstrators gathered at the Environment Agency (EA) offices in Bristol protesting against their approval of Fracking.

This article explains the reasons for the protest - which took place on 15 September 2018  - and the actions needed from individuals, communities, organisations and government. 

We recognise the EA as a key facilitator of the fracking industry, as it grants ‘environmental’ permits to shale gas companies. 

Severe pollution 

Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is the process of blasting water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals deep underground in order to extract natural gas.

Natural gas is approximately 80 percent methane, a greenhouse gas which is 86 to 105 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at disrupting the climate over a 20-year period.

Fracking is known to pollute the air, water systems, destroy vital wildlife habitat, and has severe socio-economic as well as health repercussions for local communities.

It is banned in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, France, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, and Denmark.

An evidence review published in March 2018 by Concerned Health Professionals of New York concluded that: "Emerging data from a rapidly expanding body of evidence continues to reveal a plethora of recurring problems and harms that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks. There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperilling climate stability upon which public health depends". 

'Nightmarish paradox'

The EA was established by Environment secretary Lord Debden in 1996 "to protect and improve the environment", and lists "acting to reduce climate change" as one of its core responsibilities.

The EA is a public body sponsored by the government Department for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). This means that ministers have ultimate authority in setting the direction of the agency, limiting its ability to professionally apply its judgements on environmental matters such as fracking.  

In a nightmarish paradox, it is preparing the country for adapting to the impacts of climate change, whilst simultaneously dishing out permits for onshore oil and gas drilling which will exacerbate the climate crisis.  

Speaking in 2017 at the launch of a report on environmental regulation following Brexit, Debden commented: “Unfortunately, we have emasculated many of our protections. When I set up the EA, I insisted on it being independent, making independent statements and keeping the Government to account. Successive Governments have removed that. It is no longer an independent body but it’s got to become that”. 

Similarly, Lord Chris Smith, chair of the EA from 2008-14, explained the EA's fundamental duty to provide "high quality impartial advice to the government and also, crucially, to the British public". 

Breaching regulations

However, Smith explained: “When the coalition government came in, all of that changed. It was made very clear to us that, whilst private impartial advice was still sought and still welcome, it should not under any circumstances be put into the public domain. It was up to ministers to decide what the public should be told, not up to us”.

The independent expertise the EA can offer is desperately needed now more than ever.

Fracking is set to begin imminently at a site in Lancashire called Preston New Road. This will be the first active fracking site in the UK for seven years.

So far the Environment Agency has been called into question over its handling of a range of environmental concerns related to the site. To date, there have been at least six permit breaches in the way waste is managed.

In April this year, the EA was accused by Frack Free Lancashire of allowing Cuadrilla to “move the regulatory goalposts” when it granted changes to their permit, allowing rainwater collected on the site to be treated on site and disposed of into a nearby stream, as opposed to off site.

Cherished forests

This September, the decision was made not to renew a fracking license at Leith Hill, which is situated in historic woodland managed by the Forestry Commission.

DEFRA, acting with the Forestry Commission (a regulatory body set up similarly to the EA), went against the current general government push to increase onshore oil and gas production.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “The nation’s woods and forests are cherished natural assets and we want to ensure they are protected now and into the future.

“Because of the potential impact on nearby ancient woodland, the Environment Secretary has decided not to extend Europa Oil and Gas’ lease to carry out activity in Forestry Commission land.”

We call on the Environment Agency and its workers to observe this case, to act with impartiality and to take a tougher stance against a reckless fracking industry which threatens our air quality, our water quality and our climate. 

Held to account

We also hold the government to account in supporting the EA to fulfil its duty to the public.

We call on the EA to stop doing everything they can to bring a new fossil fuel industry into being, whilst we experience rapidly escalating climate instability and crises on a local and global scale.

We need action now, not in five or ten year’s time, but today. We must reduce carbon emissions before it is too late (if it isn’t already), and immediately address the industrial pollution of our environment. 

This Author 

E.N and R.S are members of Bristol Rising Tide, a grassroots network working for climate justice.

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