5th June 2017: 'Conservatives Planning 'Frackageddon' After Election' » 2017 » Mobbsey's Musings » Paul Mobbs/MEI » FRAW

A bunch of ideologues in search of the 'Great White Whale'
of growth… and willing to take the rest of us with them
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Conservatives Planning 'Frackageddon' After Election

How 'permitted development' will not only allow at least half of on-shore oil and gas operations to go ahead without local consent, but also with little regulation

Paul Mobbs, Mobbsey's Musings, 5th June 2017

Written for Talk Fracking.

To download a copy of "The 'Fracking' Election" report, goto ecolonomics 17

Very few electors read manifestos, let alone debate the detail of them. That's a pity, as it might change the nature of the tired debates we see at every election.

For this week's general election, the Conservative Party's manifesto[1] outlines a sharp break in British planning and environmental policy of a scale not seen since the 1980s.

Ostensibly their aim is to make 'fracking' require more exacting regulation.

That sounds really great in theory. In practice it depends what your legal definition of 'fracking' is.

Elections don't do details, just sound-bites

In Britain, elections are probably the worst method by which we try to decide complex issues.

For the last few months I've been working on[2] the Conservatives failed fossil fuel policy for Talk Fracking[3] – supporting their report, Whitehall's Fracking Science Failure[4].

That centres on the Conservative's claim[5], repeated in their manifesto for this election, that fracking produces gas that is "cleaner than coal".

During the election campaign, while some media have covered[6] the 'permitted development' issue, nearly all have missed the nuances of 'definition' behind the policy – and thus its practical implications.

For example, if government ministers systematically override local councils and regulators on fracking, imposing their will directly on the public[7], does making fracking permitted development really make a difference in the end? The results would be the same.

An English 'Halliburton Exemption'

First and foremost – this is an English problem.

Scotland currently has a moratorium on unconventional oil and gas development. Wales has a bar in planning law, but can't actually control Whitehall's licensing powers.

'Fracking', more than any other current issue, shows the 'gulf of unreasonableness' that has arisen between England and the other home nations. And in the current election, those differences will become more stark if the Conservative Government is re-elected.

The real damage here is not the 'permitted development' angle.

It's how the exemptions recently enacted as part of the Infrastructure Act 2015[8] combine with permitted development and another, seemingly throw-away statement in the manifesto:

We will set up a new Shale Environmental Regulator, which will assume the relevant functions of the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This will provide clear governance and accountability, become a source of expertise, and allow decisions to be made fairly but swiftly.

Previous experience in Britain – especially with the discredited precursor[9] to today's Environment Agency, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution[10] – would suggest that creating a fracking 'super-regulator' is not about protecting the public from fracking.

It's inherently about protecting the 'frackers' from the public.

The policy not only relaxes planning control, it also make the regulation of unconventional oil and gas in general more remote from the public – in effect, creating an English 'Halliburton Exemption'[11] for the on-shore industry.

Planning permission vs. permitted development

After the anomalous Infrastructure Act had been passed the Government's position was that[12]:

The Government is committed to ensuring that local communities are fully involved in planning decisions that affect them.

The Conservative manifesto appears to echo that sentiment somewhat.

However, what this all comes down to are legal definitions – again, something seldom discussed during general election campaigns.

Currently planning law states, in section 55[13] of the Town and Country Planning Act, that all "development" needs planning permission. The exception, granted through section 57, is where a development has been granted 'permitted development rights' by the Government nationally.

These exemptions are enacted in each home nation through the General Permitted Development Order[14], or 'GPDO' – which is why England differs from Wales and Scotland.

Currently the GPDO in England allows certain rights for minerals development, but excludes 'petroleum' operations.

All a new Conservative Government need do is abolish those exemptions – job done.

Even if that change is made, local minerals planning authorities could theoretically overturn permitted development rights using what's called an 'Article 5' notice.

In practice though there's little point as the Government could instantly over-ride the notice – but it would be a wonderfully political campaign tactic, forcing the government to impose drilling directly over local official objections.

The deception of definitions

What the Conservative manifesto states is:

We will legislate to change planning law for shale applications. Non-fracking drilling will be treated as permitted development.

That echoes the position of the Government, as expressed by the Business Minister, Jesse Norman, during the debate[15] on the regulations enacting the Infrastructure Act:

The Government's intention is clear: to prohibit what we would describe as hydraulic fracking. There may be conventional, low-scale operations; they are not covered by the regulations. The purpose of the regulations is not to cover those, because there are other protections in the system that configure themselves to local circumstances, including protections in planning permission.

There's a humongous amount of information available which pretty much agrees what 'fracking' is; blasting water, sand and chemicals into rock at high pressure to release oil and gas.

That is NOT the Government's definition, introduced into law via section 50[16] of the Infrastructure Act. What that states is:

"Associated hydraulic fracturing" means hydraulic fracturing of shale or strata encased in shale which –

(a) is carried out in connection with the use of the relevant well to search or bore for or get petroleum, and
(b) involves, or is expected to involve, the injection of –
(i) more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at each stage, or expected stage, of the hydraulic fracturing, or
(ii) more than 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in total.

'Mini-fracs', and what is not 'fracking'

During the passage of the Infrastructure Act campaigners and the media were focussed on the debate over deep drilling access.

As with today's simplistic focus on 'permitted development', that was not where the real story was at the time – and the debate over 'trespass' worked brilliantly for the industry, allowing the government's loose definition of 'fracking' to slip through.

The problem was that by adding a volume to the definition, the Government created a situation where the same operation – 'fracking' – could legally be defined as not to constitute 'fracking' at all.

Sir Humphrey Appleby[17] would be proud!

At the time, those of us looking at the detail started to use the term "mini-frac". That is, any fracking operation which doesn't meet that 1,000 or 10,000 cubic metre definition.

The law also talks of "fracturing of shale or strata encased in shale". There are a number of potential oil and gas recovery techniques which don't require the 'fracturing' of shale at all.

That's significant in The Weald Basin[18] where operators are using 'matrix acidizing'[19] – injecting acid to dissolve, not fracture the rock to recover oil. As recent research studies have shown, just because it's not 'fracking' doesn't mean that the chemicals used in acidizing are any less toxic[20].

How much drilling will be 'permitted'?

A study published in 2015[21] looked at water consumption in well stimulation in the USA. The data shows the median figures[22] for water consumption, and offers a sobering view of what might happen here.

In some regions a small proportion of fracked gas wells would not meet the Government's definition of fracking, while in others a much greater number would. For oil wells the water consumption is much lower, so the numbers not meeting the definition would be much higher.

This correlates to the recent analysis[23] by the University of Edinburgh geologist, Professor Stuart Haszeldine.

In his view:

Two-fifths of gas wells across England not requiring planing permission?

Perhaps four-fifths of oil wells?

Thing is, this is not just about permitted development.

Those two-fifths/four-fifths of wells would also encounter next to no regulation when the powers of the Environment Agency have been spirited-away to the new 'super-regulator' – again, because of that loose Government definition.

For those who used to work on pollution issues before the 1990s, that's the real concern. The Conservatives are resurrecting the 'Victorian' spectre of the old HMIP and Alkali Inspectorate to govern on-shore oil and gas drilling.

This is not haphazard – it is a planned strategy

In 2012 David Cameron gave a speech to the CBI[24]. I absolutely urge you to read the core of that speech because it helps you make sense of recent Government actions.

In the speech he outlined a strategy whereby the Government was going to cut back on judicial review, reduce consultation, streamline European legislation, and restrict the 'gold-plating' of domestic legislation – and force Whitehall to cut corners in achieving that process.

Pretty much that whole agenda was completed by 2014. The machinations around 'fracking' have been an intimate part of it.

What's worse today is 'Brexit' – but again, people are not really talking about why.

At present we have certain rights to be consulted made under international obligations. The Government cannot override them.

For example, making drilling 'permitted development' removes out right to be consulted on planning locally. In fact permitted development does not require ANY local publicity at all.

However the Environment Agency must still consult the public on environmental permits – it's required by the Aarhus Convention[25].

A 'hard Brexit' would remove the Government's need to obey not only EU law, but also Council of Europe (CoE) and UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) treaties – which require both public consultation, and access to 'environmental justice' to redress any harms caused.

When I look at fracking as a 'lobby', I see it is as part of the greater 'Brexit' concept.

An ideological campaign by those who chase economic growth like Ahab chased his white whale[26] – and we are all just as expendable as Ahab's crew in that cause. And given the evidence we have, we know in the case of 'fracking' that this crusade is just as futile.

After eight years working on this issue, and trying to engage politicians and civil servants in a dialogue on the evidence, I now feel that any hope of 'persuasion' on 'fracking' has passed. Whitehall now works to a very different, inward-looking agenda. Now we must organize to resist what that agenda brings, should the Conservative Party win on Friday morning.


  1. The Conservative Party: 'Forward Together', manifesto 2017 – https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/manifesto2017/Manifesto2017.pdf
  2. Paul Mobbs/MEI: 'Whitehall's 'Fracking' Science Failure – A report for Talk Fracking', February 2017 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/reports/pollution/20170200-whitehalls_fracking_science_failure.pdf
  3. Talk Frackinghttp://www.talkfracking.org/
  4. The Ecologist: 'Whitehall's fracking science failure – shale gas really is worse for climate than coal', Paul Mobbs, 24th May 2017 – http://www.theecologist.org/News/news_analysis/2988975/whitehalls_fracking_science_failure_shale_gas_really_is_worse_for_climate_than_coal.html
  5. Paul mobbs/MEI: 'Whitehall's 'Fracking' Science Failure – A report for Talk Fracking', February 2017 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/archive/reports_pollution.shtml#rptwfsf
  6. Independent On-line: 'Election 2017: Conservatives back fracking 'revolution' in the party manifesto', Ian Johnston, Thursday 18th May 2017 – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-conservatives-fracking-party-manifesto-tory-gas-shale-domestic-enivronment-a7742496.html
  7. Geoforum: 'Fracking Lancashire: The planning process, social harm and collective trauma', Damien Short and Anna Szolucha, 17th March 2017 – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718517300519
  8. Wikipedia: 'Infrstructure Act 2015'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrastructure_Act_2015
  9. New Scientist: 'Ministers reject call for a 'British EPA'', 6th May 1989 – https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg12216631-700-ministers-reject-call-for-a-british-epa/
  10. Wikipedia: 'Alkali Act 1863'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alkali_Act_1863
  11. Food and Water Watch: 'Ten Years Later, the "Halliburton Loophole" and America's Dirty Fracking Boom', Wenonah Hauter, 10th August 2015 – https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/news/ten-years-later-halliburton-loophole-and-americas-dirty-fracking-boom
  12. DECC/DCLG: 'Shale gas and oil policy statement by DECC and DCLG', 13th August 2015 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/shale-gas-and-oil-policy-statement-by-decc-and-dclg/shale-gas-and-oil-policy-statement-by-decc-and-dclg#planning
  13. Town and Country Planning Act 1990: 'Meaning of Development'http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/part/III/crossheading/meaning-of-development
  14. Wikipedia: 'General Permitted Development Order'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Permitted_Development_Order
  15. House of Commons Hansard: ' Petroleum Licensing (Exploration and Production) (Landward Areas) (Amendment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2016', Column 1, 1st March 2017 – https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-03-01/debates/c61191ad-8ba9-4162-b91a-47dcbc1cc347/PetroleumLicensing(ExplorationAndProduction)(LandwardAreas)(Amendment)(EnglandAndWales)Regulations2016
  16. Legislation UK: 'Section 50 – Infrastructure Act 2015'http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2015/7/section/50/enacted
  17. YouTube: 'The Tangled Web – Yes, Prime Minister'https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8keZbZL2ero
  18. DECC: 'BGS Weald Basin Jurassic Shale reports', 23rd May 2014 – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/bgs-weald-basin-jurassic-shale-reports
  19. Earthworks: 'Acidizing'https://www.earthworksaction.org/issues/detail/acidizing
  20. PlosOne: 'Comparison of chemical-use between hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, and routine oil and gas development', Stringfellow et al., vol.12 no.4 ref.e0175344, 19th April 2017 – http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0175344&type=printable
  21. Environmental Science and Technology: Water Footprint of Hydraulic Fracturing', Andrew Kondash and Avner Vengosh, vol.2 no10 pp.276-280, 2015 – http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/acs.estlett.5b00211
  22. Wikipedia: 'Median'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median
  23. Guardian On-line: 'UK government's fracking definition 'could allow drilling without safeguards'', Damian Carrington, Wednesday 13th April 2016 – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/apr/13/uk-governments-fracking-definition-could-allow-drilling-without-safeguards
  24. Cabinet Office/Prime Minister's Office: 'Prime Minister's speech to CBI', 19th November 2012 – https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-speech-to-cbi
  25. Wikipedia: 'Aarhus Convention'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aarhus_Convention
  26. Wikipedia: 'Moby Dick'https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby-Dick