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Business Comment

Mark Leftly: Government information on the future of fracking is buried far too deep

Westminster Outlook Francis Gugen has been described as "measured", "intense", "capable" and "determined". For years he led the UK and north-west Europe operations of Amerada Hess, today simply known as Hess Corporation and a gas station giant that is in the Fortune 100 list of biggest US companies.

Mr Gugen, then, is no fool, so it would be wise to take his comments this week extremely seriously: "During the course of the year there has been meaningful progress made in developing the regulatory and associated framework to support shale gas development.

"The Government has now put its full support behind shale gas and there is a broad cross-party consensus in favour of its development in Britain."

These words formed part of his chairman's statement at the annual results for IGas, which is listed on AIM.

IGas is close to completing the purchase of Dart Energy for nearly £120m, a deal that will create something of a British shale gas champion.

Fracking, which involves releasing gas by breaking shale rock layers deep beneath our feet, has been cast by opposing ends of the spectrum as either a huge environmental disaster waiting to happen – or the process that will bridge the country's ever-widening energy gap.

It is, then, only natural that people would want to know just what meetings that executives from iGas and Dart – as well as those from rivals Tamboran Resources and Viking Energy – have had with ministers and senior officials.

Specifically, a recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request asked for emails and letters between the Department of Energy & Climate Change and these companies, as well as internal ministerial briefing papers and agendas of face-to-face conversations.

This would date back to the start of last year and cover material concerning unconventional oil and gas extraction, which also includes retrieving gas from coal beds.

The department has, outrageously, declined what is a straightforward search of a few records, computer drives and email accounts for the information.

It would, according to a reply published on Monday, "require a substantial volume of work". It also curiously described this fairly well-defined request as "broad and voluminous". It would be better, it suggested, if the FoI request were refined to "a particular set of correspondence or meeting".

That is ludicrous given that the whole point of this request was to establish what correspondence or meetings have occurred and when. Too often, FoI has been used to conceal important information in plain sight. Allowing requests is very different from processing them but it creates the illusion of open government.

Mr Gugen is extremely clear that fracking is going to be a big part of Britain's future. We should be allowed to find out whether his comments are backed up by what he or his colleagues has been told on the quiet by those who govern us.