The government has “heavily censored” a secret report on the fracking industry, released by court order after years of trying to keep it hidden from the public.
Whitehall initially refused to reveal the 2016 report when it came to light in January 2018 because “it could call into question the industry’s viability”, kick-starting a 22-month freedom of information (FoI) battle with Greenpeace.
After ignoring an information tribunal’s order in October to release the documents, the Cabinet Office finally complied on Monday – with 37 of the report’s 48 pages completely redacted behind a “black wall” of ink.
The uncensored passages that remain reveal the government had identified public opposition to fracking as the industry’s main barrier to progress, and decided to develop a ”pro-shale narrative”, with plans to incorporate energy companies’ own messaging into the government’s “longer-term national communications efforts”.
It also showed that in response to operators’ concerns, Whitehall was deliberating over ways in which planning and public consultation processes could be made faster and “more predictable”.
Suggestions included “reducing resources [for local authorities] invested to request additional information from industry” and seeking advice on whether they can “time-out” legally required consultees who are late in submitting input.
Shadow cabinet office minister Jon Trickett said: “This report clearly shows that the Tories have bent over backwards to serve the interests of big business, especially the oil and gas industry.
“The Conservatives have taken money from oil executives, trashed the rights of communities and enabled fracking companies to threaten their local environment.
“The fact they have tried to cover this up by redacting pages of critical information – like with their talks with the US over selling off parts of our NHS – further illustrates this government’s contempt for the public.”
In October, the government issued a moratorium on fracking after the UK’s only site, Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road well in Lancashire, was blamed for a series of earthquakes.
But campaigners are worried the temporary ban may be lifted again if the Tories win the forthcoming election, with Jeremy Corbyn branding it an “election stunt”.
Business secretary Andrea Leadsom admitted the failure was a “disappointment” and still contended shale gas remained something the UK “will need for the next several decades”. She said the ban would remain in effect until “new compelling evidence is provided”.
“It’s clear that previous Conservative administrations bent over backwards to help the fracking industry bulldoze its way into the British countryside,” said Greenpeace’s head of politics Rebecca Newsom.
“People would feel much more confident about the Conservatives' pledge on fracking if they used the overwhelming evidence of its unacceptable risks to people and our environment to introduce a permanent ban, and put this industry to bed once and for all.”
The redacted report was obtained by Unearthed, Greenpeace’s investigations team. Last year, it received a small portion of the report via FoI request which showed officials were privately sceptical of the forecasted scale of fracking’s success.
The newly released passages show how far the Cabinet Office was willing to go to make the industry a success.
It appears that rather than addressing public concerns about “local quality of life and safety, environmental protection [and the] crowding out of renewables”, the now defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change was “already undertaking crucial work on communications to increase public acceptability of shale” such as the “development of pro-shale national/regional narrative” and “shale champions”.
Another passage suggests that despite a lack of evidence for the safety of hydraulic fracturing, officials were concerning themselves with how to minimise planning regulations to alleviate the concerns of businesses.
The passage reads: “Current and future operators stress that they will only bring forward large sites if current long planning times and perceived uncertainty is reduced – ie unless this can be resolved, UK shale will not take off even if geology proven.”
Despite fracking being responsible for releasing vast amounts of methane - a key greenhouse gas - the government has long maintained that fracking can help the UK transition away carbon and reduce reliance on imports.
Ms Newsom added: “Looking at this black wall of redacted pages, people will be wondering why there’s so little the government is willing to reveal about fracking and so much it wants to hide.
“If ministers have really dropped their support for this polluting industry, why not publish this report in full and come clean about what’s been going on behind closed doors for years?”
Ken Cronin, chief executive of trade group UK Onshore Oil and Gas, said the report reveals "no new information of interest".
He said: "It is true that shale gas development in the UK has progressed at a steady pace, although this is commensurate with the exploratory and highly regulated nature of the industry.
“Since this report was [produced], the first hydraulic fracturing since 2011 has taken place, several sites have been constructed and tested across North Nottinghamshire and multiple planning applications have been submitted for further exploratory work across Derbyshire and Lancashire.
“As with any industry that involves development, our progress has been slowed by the local planning system. This is not a unique problem to shale within the energy sector. Onshore wind and solar have met with comparable delays where applications have been filed.”
The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment.
The report, which has been redacted on every page except the cover, can be viewed online.
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