Fracking commissioner resigns after six months

Natascha Engel was previously deputy speaker of the House of Commons
Natascha Engel was previously deputy speaker of the House of Commons

The UK’s shale gas commissioner is resigning after just six months, saying fracking is being throttled by rules preventing mini earthquakes

Current government rules mean fracking must be suspended every time a 0.5 magnitude tremor is detected.

But Natascha Engel said this cautious approach to earth tremors had created a de facto ban on fracking.

Green campaigners say fracking is deeply damaging to the environment – but Ms Engel dismissed those claims.

In her resignation letter to Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Greg Clark, Ms Engel said government was “pandering to what we know to be myths and scare stories” about shale gas extraction.

A spokesman for the department said the government supported the development of the shale industry in the UK “because we believe it could have the potential to be a new domestic energy source, and create thousands of well paid, quality jobs”.

They added the government was “confident” that current regulations “strike the right balance in ensuring the industry can develop, while ensuring any operations are carried out safely and responsibly”.

Ministers created the commissioner role to give confidence in regulation to local communities, the industry and regulators.

But Ms Engel’s departure will be welcomed by green groups who said her pro-fracking views precluded her from being an honest broker.

So, what is the issue?

The key issue is a government rule that forces the industry to stop fracking every time there is a micro-tremor of 0.5 magnitude.

Miss Engel said: “This amounts to a de facto ban. The paralysis we are seeing in Parliament (on fracking policy) is made worse by social media and a powerful environmental lobby making impossible demands on CO2 emissions.”

The government said it wanted to support fracking because gas produces fewer carbon emissions than coal.

fracking graphic

Ms Engel said the result of the over-strict regulations would be difficulty in making those CO2 reductions, lower economic growth, and less energy security – as the UK would need to import gas rather than produce its own.

She continued: “These points have been made repeatedly but ministers ignore them and instead allow campaign groups to drive policy.

“So many local businesses face collapse. They have invested vast amounts to ‘get ready for shale’ as the government had told them to. There is, therefore, no purpose in this role.”

She pointed out that 49 geoscientists had recently called on the government to relax what they called the over-zealous regulations.

Fracking protest
Campaigners say fracking is environmentally damaging

How will opponents of fracking respond?

Environmentalists will be delighted with Ms Engel’s decision to quit. They argued that fracking rules on the crowded land of the UK must be far more rigorous than in the open spaces of the USA.

More fundamentally, they said it was madness for the UK to be seeking more gas when firms have already discovered far more fossil fuel than scientists say can be burned without wrecking the climate.

Environmental charity Friends of the Earth said Ms Engel’s suggestion that fracking could help reduce carbon emissions was “outrageous”.

It added the government had already “bent over backwards to help the fracking industry”, despite it being “bad news for our climate and environment” and “deeply unpopular with the public”.

Earlier this week, the former CBI head Adair Turner said there was no place for fracking if the UK was to play its part in holding global temperature rise down to 1.5C.

The government’s policy has also been influenced by its own backbenchers. Also this week, the Teeside MP Simon Clark said the time for fracking in Parliament had come and gone.