Bye-bye Natascha!

14 May 2019

In the very early hours of Sunday morning, 28 April, our very own favourite former MP Natascha Engel issued a Press Release announcing her resignation from her post as the Government’s Shale Gas Commissioner. Was she resigning because she had listened to the science and decided that she was wrong to have supported fracking for shale gas? Had she realised that fracking would be an environmental disaster? Had she come to accept that not only would it be commercially unviable, but also that it was not in fact necessary for our energy security? Was she full of contrition for having attempted to mislead local communities by suggesting that “hundreds, if not thousands” of new jobs would be created and that economic bounties would flow in due to fracking?

Not a bit of it.

Instead, she gave a long statement fully supporting unconventional hydraulic fracturing for shale gas extraction and launched a vitriolic attack on her erstwhile employers, the Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. She said that the Government’s refusal to relax safety measures regarding fracking-induced earth tremors meant that it “amounts to a de facto ban” on fracking and that “there is, therefore, no purpose in this role”.

In her resignation announcement, Ms Engel blasted the Government for “listening to a small but loud environmental movement that opposes in principle all extraction of fossil fuels.” We presume this would be as opposed to listening to her and a small but loud group of oil and gas industry CEO’s and Directors; her, Francis Egan (Cuadrilla), Jim Ratcliffe, Tom Pickering, Tom Crotty (all INEOS) and …. well, that’s about it, really. Just them.

Ms Engel described the role of Shale Gas Commissioner as her “ideal job” but said that “where you’ve got government in such terrible paralysis, you do have to do something as dramatic as this” in order to have your voice heard. It is not clear whether she was referring to the current problems over Brexit when she spoke of “terrible paralysis”, or a refusal (so far) to relax the regulations relating to fracking-induced seismic activity.

She went on to say that “The profile of environmentalism has really been raised and I think the need to reduce our carbon emissions is absolutely urgent and fracking is absolutely one way we can do that.” We “absolutely” disagree with her over that last point.

Let’s have a look at what else she said.

Natascha said:
“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.”

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.

We say:
This is a staggering over-simplification of the climate emergency. Whereas CO2 emissions do need to be cut, this is just a part of the bigger picture; all greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut and this includes methane, the natural gas which fracking companies are after, and which according to the Environmental Defense Fund website is 84% worse as a greenhouse gas than CO2. It is also true that the UK is now using virtually no coal at all to produce electricity, meaning that CO2 emissions in the UK’s energy sector are now widely recognised as being about as low as it is possible to achieve.

As for energy security, it is clear that the British Government should now be taking much more seriously its global responsibility to cut further use of fossil fuels by investing in renewables such as wind, tidal and solar power, and in the development of more efficient and powerful storage batteries. We should be concentrating our efforts on clean renewable energy sources to reduce our reliance on imported liquid natural gas rather than trying to exploit a new domestic source of fracked gas.

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Natascha said:
“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.”

We say:
Not for the first time since she started in this job, Ms Engel makes vague, sweeping statements with absolutely no supporting data to back them up. How many “local businesses” face collapse? What businesses? Where are they? How much have they invested? Why would they need to “get ready for shale”? And when did the Government tell them to do so? For what purpose?

This is typical of Natascha Engel; making a melodramatic statement with no attempt to provide any evidence whatsoever to support or justify what she is saying.

We at CADAF can find no discernible link between local businesses allegedly facing collapse and the “purpose” of the job of Shale Gas Commissioner.

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Natascha said:
“We are facing a huge challenge from climate change, which can only be dealt with by getting serious about the energy we use. But using our own gas instead of imports will get our emissions down.”

We say:
This claim is made on the basis that ships bringing imported gas into the UK have their own carbon footprint. But what Ms Engel conveniently ignores is the carbon footprint of carrying out the actual fracking operations themselves: the hundreds of diesel-powered HGV movements used to transport the millions of gallons of water, fracking fluids and flow-back waste to and from each well site; the methane emissions from wells during flaring; the HGVs required to move the heavy drilling equipment to and fro between drilling sites; countless and continuous on-site vehicle movements; and the generators required to provide on-site power for the drilling and lighting equipment.

In addition to the carbon footprint of fracking, there is the environmental damage likely to be caused by the industry’s insatiable appetite for millions of gallons of water needed by each drilling operation; water that currently supplies our domestic, commercial and other industrial needs as well as those of agriculture and livestock farming; water which will be lost to us.

And all this would need to be multiplied by a factor of 6,000 – the number of wells the Cardiff Business School has estimated would be required to replace only one half of our estimated gas imports between 2021 and 2035 (see The Independent report here). That figure of 6,000 is estimated at the maximum sustainably possible number of fracking wells in the UK; and we’d still have to import 50% of our needs.

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Natascha said:
“Government policy is strangling the UK shale gas industry at birth – despite overwhelming scientific evidence that fracking, if properly regulated, is totally safe.”

“We know shale gas can be extracted safely. We have the best regulations and regulators in the world.”

“A 0.5 tremor is much weaker than the rumble you might feel when walking above a Tube train. Yet if a frack unleashes a tremor rated 0.5 operators have to stop what they’re doing for 18 hours… this is making fracking impossible.”

We say:
It is being properly regulated: that is why Cuadrilla were forced to stop fracking at Preston New Road in Lancashire so many times in November and December last year, and why they had to abandon fracking altogether at their nearby Preese Hall site in 2011.

This is thanks to the “best regulations and regulators in the world”.

Led and advised by experts, the Government set the current regulations relating to fracking-induced earth tremors in 2012, following the 2011 Preese Hall quakes of up to 2.3 local magnitude, which were centred at less than 0.5km from the drill site and which caused damage to the drill casings. The so-called “red light” point at which fracking has to be paused was set at 0.5ML (local magnitude) under guidance from geologists and seismologists precisely because it is still considered a safe level; but also because it is at the upper end of what can be considered a safe level. A 0.5 magnitude tremor would have to be detected during fracking for the operations to be paused, but tremors occurring whilst fracking is being carried out are frequently followed by other tremors (called “trailing events”) which occur after the fracking has been stopped. These trailing events are often recorded as being of a greater magnitude than the original tremor. And a trend has been observed in the USA that trailing events gradually increase in number and in magnitude when fracking resumes. That is why it was considered necessary to impose a limit of 0.5 magnitude. Whether or not a tremor can be detected at the surface (although the 2011 Preese Hall quakes were) is immaterial: the concern is what damage may be happening at between 1,000 – 2,500 metres below ground, where the fracking is taking place and where the tremors are originating. Are they opening up faults in the rock strata, allowing toxic chemicals to migrate uncontrolled through the rock? Worse still, are they damaging the drill or its casings, again as happened at Preese Hall in 2011?

Those safety regulations were introduced in consultation with the oil and gas industry; and those same regulations are now telling us that fracking cannot be carried out safely.

Meanwhile, Natascha’s at it again … citing “overwhelming scientific evidence” without giving even one example, without quoting any sources, without referring to a single report, without providing a link to any websites; in fact without offering a single shred of evidence to back-up her claim. She has even claimed when resigning that “at the time, geologists and the industry fiercely objected” to the setting of the 0.5ML limit, another totally unfounded claim randomly thrown in without any supporting evidence.

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Natascha said:
“A perfectly viable industry is being wasted because of a Government policy driven by environmental lobbying rather than science, evidence and a desire to see UK industry flourish.”

The Government, she adds, is “listening to a small but loud environmental movement that opposes in principle all extraction of fossil fuels. The campaign against fracking has been highly successful in raising the profile – and filling the coffers – of some campaign groups, but they do not represent local residents nor the wider population.”

We say:
Whether or not shale gas could be commercially viable in the UK has long been questioned. Now, even the oil and gas industry itself is casting doubts over its future: see this report from an industry journal as a recent example. “Environmental lobbying” is beginning to succeed exactly because organisations like CADAF have mounted an effective lobbying campaign which actually is based on science and evidence. Unlike Ms Engel, we have produced the science and evidence to support our arguments. We do not wish to put an end to UK industry; just this UK industry!

We at CADAF are grateful that Natascha recognises that we and other local groups have been highly successful but our campaign is not about raising the profile – let alone filling the coffers – of “some campaign groups”. From her previous interviews in which she has said the same thing, we know she is referring to groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which have supported and advised local action groups, and for which we are very grateful. But again, not one shred of evidence as to how these already well-known, high-profile organisations have had their profiles raised further by their support for the anti-fracking lobby, nor one shred of evidence as to how much money has been raised to “fill their coffers”.

To suggest that anyone involved might wish to make gains (whether financial or in terms of profile) from fighting fracking is a scandalous accusation and says much about Ms Engel’s own motivations.

And it is ludicrous to say that “they do not represent local residents” when in truth the campaign is made up of local residents.

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Natascha said:
“If the Government continues to listen to campaign groups rather than science, then he [Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark] is effectively putting an end to fracking in the UK.”

“Firms have invested hundreds of millions of pounds. They did all this on the basis that Government policy would be rational, that it would be scientific. But it’s not.”

We say:
Why should the Secretary of State not listen to campaign groups? That’s what democracy is all about. Natascha wouldn’t complain about him listening to the likes of INEOS boss Jim Ratcliffe, or Cuadrilla CEO Francis Egan. We have been presenting a science-based case against fracking and it would be foolish of Mr Clark not to listen to our arguments. If that results in the Government backing away from fracking then it would mean that we have won the debate.

It would mean that the Government’s policy becomes a rational one based on scientific evidence.

The Minister would be putting an end to an industry that has not really started.

And look, there she goes again! “Firms have invested hundreds of millions of pounds”. What firms? Where are they? Why have they invested so much? Or is it just the fracking companies themselves, such as INEOS and Cuadrilla, who have invested “hundreds of millions”? We have no way of knowing because once again, it’s a broad, melodramatic comment made without any supporting evidence whatsoever. Even if these firms do exist, even if they have invested hundreds of millions, let’s not lose sight of that word “invested”: and like all investments, it’s a gamble, there is an element of risk involved. If that investment is lost then that’s the very nature of making investments. It should not be for the Government to push forward an environmentally dangerous new industry which is financially risky to shore up the speculative investments of private businesses.

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Natascha said:
“A small minority of residents are opposed to fracking, but they are heavily outnumbered by people who want the benefits fracking could bring. In the areas where experimental wells have been drilled – Yorkshire, Lancashire and the East Midlands – historic industry has been destroyed, causing high levels of deprivation, and people tell me they desperately want industry jobs.

“They are now very, very angry that a bunch of campaigners in London, backed it seems by the Government, say they can’t have them, because of almost undetectable earthquakes. Yet the Government is not listening to them.”

We say:
“A small minority”? When, in 2017, INEOS applied to the Derbyshire County Council for planning permission for exploratory drilling at Bramleymoor Lane, at the village of Marsh Lane, more than 4,000 objections were submitted. Planning applications for permission for exploratory drilling at nearby Harthill and Woodsetts met with a similar response. Wherever else exploration and fracking has been attempted across the north of England, be it Misson Springs in Notts, Kirby Misperton in North Yorks or Preston New Road in Lancs, local people have turned out in force and in all weathers to protest and to try to disrupt the work.

And here’s more Natascha nonsense: people desperately wanting industry jobs (presumably fracking industry jobs) feeling “very, very angry that a group of campaigners in London, backed it seems by the Government, say they can’t have them”. Who are these people? How does she know they desperately want jobs? Have they been carrying out campaigns of their own? No. And these jobs are being denied them by “a group of campaigners in London”? What campaigners? Who are they? Are they descending on London brandishing placards saying that people can’t have jobs?

Let’s go back to 2017: Natascha Engel, Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, had just had her selection as Labour’s candidate for that year’s General Election confirmed. She then announced her support for fracking, and wrote a four-page Open Letter addressed “to S18 residents on fracking”.* It was distributed as an insert, apparently paid for by Ms Engel herself, in the free monthly magazine “Dronfield Eye”.  In closing her Open Letter, Ms Engel said: “Marsh Lane and Apperknowle need a bus service to Sheffield and Chesterfield. Let’s see if we can get a shale bus from the industry … Let’s see if INEOS can work with Eckington School (which has an engineering specialism), or pay for local people to train as lorry drivers.” Now, local bus services are vital for so many people in the community, and lorry driving is a skilled, and highly responsible job. But are these the benefits and jobs Natascha has trumpeted? Is this what local residents are so very, very angry at being denied to them? A new bus service and potentially hundreds and thousands of newly-qualified lorry drivers?

*(For those who don’t live in this area, S18 is the postcode covering the town of Dronfield and the villages of Coal Aston, Dronfield Woodhouse, Holmesfield and Unstone. The nearby town of Eckington and the villages of Marsh Lane and Apperknowle among others are also in the North East Derbyshire constituency.)

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Natascha said:
“We get less than five per cent of our total energy from wind and only 0.5 per cent from solar.”

“We are also depriving the Treasury of huge tax revenues, which could be spent on schools or the NHS” or “fix the potholes in the roads”.

We say:
In terms of production of electricity, wind power is now a major source of generation: in 2017, wind generation accounted for almost 15% of total electricity production (according to fullfact.org) and all renewables, about 29.3% (Dept for BEIS press release here). The Renewable UK website says: “Onshore wind already generates clean power to meet the annual needs of more than 7.25 million homes a year and produced 9% of the UK’s power needs in 2017.”

Natascha is vastly understating the significant contribution which renewables are already making to the UK’s energy mix, and this is set to rise even further in the near future as new offshore wind farms, solar installations and tidal projects come into production. Those supporting fracking have questioned the effectiveness of wind power, asking “what happens when the wind doesn’t blow?” But how often do we get days when there is little or no wind at all in any of our offshore waters? And the latest generation of solar panels do not need wall-to-wall sunshine every day to generate electricity.

Oh, and did we mention that the amount of our total energy which we obtain from fracking is 0%?

And what of these “huge tax revenues”? The Government has from the outset sold the Exploration and Development Licenses for shale gas to private companies such as INEOS, Cuadrilla, iGas etc. If fracking ever does take off, those companies will own all the gas they extract. If it is to enter the country’s energy mix then it would have to be bought. The Government will never own it at the production stage. And in the case of INEOS, they have already made it clear that they intend to use all the gas they might extract for their own manufacturing purposes.

Therefore, there will be no tax revenues at all. It’s no more than a Brexit bus promise.

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Natascha said:
Referring to the 16-year-old Swedish climate change protestor Greta Thunberg, Natascha said: “I cannot understand why politicians would rather listen to a teenager who tells children not go to school because they will soon be dead rather than looking at ways of reducing our emissions by taking gas out of the ground here.”

We say:
This is just utterly disgraceful. A disgusting thing for anyone to say, let alone a politician who longs to be taken seriously. We will not dignify it with any further comment.

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Natascha said:
“I was really excited to be part of a vision for the future, that would help restore Britain’s reputation as a creative, forward-looking country which took both emissions targets and prosperity seriously.”

“There is much to be optimistic about how developing technologies – including fracking – can help us accelerate the reduction in CO2 and grow our economy. Sadly today only those who shout get heard.”

We say:
Britain is forging an excellent international reputation for innovation and creativity in developing renewable technology and new ideas in storage batteries. New companies, new young businesses are making the most of the huge potential in this ever-expanding field and truly are creating new jobs and local prosperity whilst looking to exploit natural energy sources which are clean, green and genuinely can help to ensure that the UK meets its own emissions targets; and by exporting the equipment they make, at the same time they can help other countries across the world to achieve the same.

We agree that there is much to be optimistic about in developing new technologies, but not in fracking. Interestingly, Ms Engel has previously tried to reassure us that fracking is NOT new, since it’s been carried out in the USA for decades!

She says that “only those who shout get heard”. She used this as an excuse not to hold public meetings to try to get her message across, depicting anti-fracking groups as some kind of baying mob. So clearly she means us! But she’s not even right about this because we have for years been trying to persuade the Government to promote, encourage and incentivise renewables instead of fracking, but so far their minds have largely remained closed.

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The quotes from Natascha Engel’s resignation letter and press briefings were taken from the following sources:
BBC
The Daily Mail
The Guardian
The Independent

Shortly after her resignation was announced, Greenpeace Unearthed published an article alleging that Ms Engel had routinely destroyed correspondence and thrown away notes from meetings, potentially breaching the Government’s transparency requirements. Since disciplinary or even legal proceedings might possibly ensue, CADAF will not comment unless and until this matter is resolved.

Drill Or Drop also published a report about how Ms Engel spent her time as Shale Gas Commissioner.

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