The government's fossil fuel push has dirtied ‘Green’ Great Britain Week
Shale gas developer Cuadrilla received permission to start fracking at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire on Friday, after the High Court dismissed a last-minute legal challenge.
Campaigners had initially won an interim injunction earlier in October against Lancashire council, arguing that emergency procedures at the fracking site were inadequate.
This will be the first fracking operation in the UK since 2011, when activity was halted after drilling by Cuadrilla caused two earthquakes at its Preese Hall site in Lancashire.
Cuadrilla had planned to begin new fracking operations over the weekend but poor weather conditions and strong winds from Storm Callum led to operations being delayed. The storm has caused the deaths of two people and led to widespread flooding across the west and Wales.
This October could yet become the wettest on record, and scientists have warned that extreme weather in the UK is likely to increase because of climate change – something laid out in the government’s own Green Great Britain Week event brochure.
The five-day long Green Great Britain Week is the government’s flagship event to mark the 10th anniversary of the Climate Change Act, that it hopes will bring “the whole country together to celebrate UK leadership and look forward to the next ten years".
The government intends to use it to promote the scale of the opportunities to reduce UK emissions to tackle climate change, grow the low carbon economy and create a better environment, with businesses, schools, community groups, and charities taking part.
The week is part of the government’s headline promise to deliver a ‘green Brexit’ with higher environmental standards in the UK once we leave the EU, and its 25-year environment plan which set out the aim to make this the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which it was inherited.
But the restart of fracking directly undermines the entire process, and the aims of Green GB Week. The disjointed approach from government is further highlighted by the fact on Monday morning while Cuadrilla was gearing up to start fracking, energy minister Claire Perry was due to give a talk at a conference on climate change, before later delivering a speech to parliament on Green GB week and the government’s plans for clean growth.
Just last week, it was also reported that Perry was considering reducing the earthquake safeguarding limits that were put in place after the two earthquakes caused by fracking in 2011. This would be the latest in a series of proposals aimed at removing regulation to help fracking develop at a commercial scale.
In May Greg Clark, the secretary of state energy, proposed changing planning law in England so decisions on fracking would be taken by government ministers, and not local authorities. Under the proposals shale gas sites in future could even be classed as ‘permitted development’, meaning they do not require planning permission.
He also proposed transferring the regulation of fracking to a newly created and streamlined body, away from the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority as it is currently regulated.
The government has spent nearly a decade putting its support beyond developing shale gas, ensuring it could be a commercial success, and an industry that will deliver jobs and economic growth to the UK.
But with just one gas well fracked since 2011, it is under increasing pressure to deliver on these claims. This is despite internally lowering expectations on the future size of a potential shale gas industry.
The changes to the planning procedure and alter limits on earthquake monitoring could be viewed as attempts at ensuring the sector grows and the UK has commercial development of shale.
But a lack of public support and the absence of a social licence for fracking remains a huge stumbling block – and the government’s own polling shows renewables remain more popular with the public than fracking.
The assistance offered to the shale sector stands in contrast to the cuts the government has made to renewables. In May the government was strongly rebuked by the independent Environmental Audit Committee for the decline in clean energy investment in the UK.
A string of decisions since 2015 to remove support for renewables have resulted in a fall in clean energy investment by 10 percent in 2016 and 56 percent in 2017.
The resumption of fracking is a significant milestone for the shale gas sector, but it is too early to determine if it will be a success. Drilling results from this site will not be known by Cuadrilla until the new year.
But the resumption of fracking is also highly significant for the government. The support being given for new fossil fuel production in the UK means it's plans to tackle climate change, boost the low carbon economy, and deliver a green Brexit appear to have little substance.
Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK