The risks and benefits of fracking for the UK are to be examined by a “independent” task force, led by the former head of the Environment Agency, Lord Chris Smith, and funded by shale gas companies.
“We will assess the existing evidence, ask for new contributions and lead a national conversation around this vitally important issue,” said Smith, who as chair of the Environment Agency oversaw key fracking regulation. “The Task Force on Shale Gas will provide impartial opinions on the impacts, good and bad, that the exploitation of shale gas will have on the UK.”
The government is “going all out” for the rapid development of shale gas in the UK, according to David Cameron. Conservatives say it can increase energy security, help reduce carbon emissions if gas replaces coal and be a boon to poor parts of the UK.
But there is fierce and growing opposition to fracking from communities concerned about environmental damage and campaigners against the development of new fossil fuel sources.
Recent changes to trespass laws to allow fracking under peoples’ homes have been particularly controversial. Both sides of the debate frequently accuse the other of exaggeration and scaremongering.
An initial £650,000 of funding for the task force has been provided by fracking companies, including Cuadrilla, Centrica and Total. The task force hopes to find other sources to provide another £650,000 to allow completion of a report in 2016. “I would not have taken this on if I was not absolutely certain we could be independent and impartial about what we do,” Smith told the Guardian. “The funders have no influence over what we look at or what we do.”
Other groups have already examined fracking, including the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012. Their recommendation of their report, that the government establish a specific set of regulations for fracking, was not taken up.
An ongoing academic project, called ReFINE and funded at arms-length by industry, is also examining shale gas exploration. It found in March that a lack of publicly available data on the UK’s onshore oil and gas drilling means there are significant “unknowns” about the safety of future fracking wells.
Smith said the new task force would look at aspects not covered by earlier academic work, including impacts like noise on local communities and wider economic and climate issues. “We will look at whether [fracking] is economically sustainable and whether it locks in another generation of carbon emissions,” he said. A government report into the effect of fracking on house prices was heavily redacted before being released under freedom of information rules.
Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said he was unconvinced by the new task force: “This looks like another attempt by the shale gas industry to buy respectability. If they think that opponents of shale gas, nationally and locally, who are rightly concerned about its impacts, will be convinced by an industry-funded body then they have badly misjudged. Rather than putting their money into bodies like this, the industry should engage in genuine debate with local communities.”
The Environment Agency is responsible for the environmental safety of fracking and, in 2013 when Smith was chair, he was summoned by former environment secretary Owen Paterson to resolve a dispute over the regulation with Cuadrilla boss Lord John Browne. Smith said in June: “Our firm view [at the EA] is that existing regulations are adequate to ensure that fracking operations happen safely.” He also said he “wouldn’t rule out” fracking in national parks.
The two other members of the task force are Baroness Patience Wheatcroft, a Conservative member of the House of Lords and Professor Ernest Rutter, a geologist at the University of Manchester. “The issue of shale gas is hugely emotive,” said Wheatcroft. “The aim of the Task Force is to sift through the emotion and examine the evidence about whether or not, and on what basis, if any, the UK should exploit shale gas.”
Smith, a former Labour cabinet minister, said: “There is no guarantee we will be able to solve these conundrums, but we will have a good go.”