Exclusive: Ministers slammed over fracking

Earthquakes, poisoning fears, demonstrations, but still no top-level talks on suspect gas technique

Tom Bawden
Monday 16 January 2012 01:00 GMT

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The Government has been accused of "appalling complacency" after it emerged that not a single minister has met with the Environment Agency's experts to discuss the hugely controversial gas exploration technique known as fracking.

Despite earthquakes in Blackpool, growing concerns about poisoning of the water supply and demonstrations around the world, the Government still appears not to be taking the potential dangers of fracking seriously enough, critics said. At the weekend, anti-fracking demonstrations were held in London, Paris, Copenhagen and Bulgaria.

The extent of the Government's failure to prioritise the issue came in the answer to a parliamentary question tabled following The Independent's revelations last month that the US environment agency had established the first clear link between fracking and water poisoning.

The shadow Energy minister, Tom Greatrex, said the Department of Energy and Climate Change was taking a "shockingly complacent approach" after learning that its ministers have not met anybody from the Environment Agency to discuss the technique.

DECC is headed by Chris Huhne, Secretary of State, and Charles Hendry is the Energy minister.

Mr Greatrex, Labour MP for Rutherglen & Hamilton West, said: "It is astonishing that no UK minister has met with the Environment Agency to discuss fracking and shale gas."

Professor Paul Stevens, a senior research fellow at the think-tank Chatham House, found the lack of face-to-face contact between DECC ministers and the EA "appalling".

"This is incredible, ridiculous really," said Professor Stevens, who gave evidence to an inquiry by the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on the topic last year. "It's common sense that if a select committee has done a report like this the relevant ministers would go to the EA to get their reaction to it.

"I am appalled that DECC ministers didn't go to talk to somebody on the environmental side of things," added Professor Stevens, who in 2009 won the Opec Award for his contribution to oil and energy research.

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a mixture of sand, chemicals and water is blasted into shale rocks at high speed to fracture them and release the oil and gas they contain. Vast reserves of shale gas were found in the Blackpool area last year, which can be extracted only by fracking.

The MPs' report concluded last year that "on balance, there should not be a moratorium on the use of hydraulic fracturing". However, the committee had heard evidence on the environmental dangers of fracking, and added that "DECC needs to monitor closely the current exploratory activity in the Bowland Shale [around Blackpool] in order to both assess the likely impact of large-scale shale gas extraction in the UKand also to promote public confidence in the regulation of this activity".

Operations at the UK's sole fracking site were halted after an investigation concluded in November that they had probably caused about 50 earthquakes in the Blackpool area.

Meanwhile, a study by the Environmental Protection Agency in the US last month linked the practice with water pollution for the first time.

DECC is reviewing the report into the Blackpool earthquakes before deciding whether to allow production at the site to continue. It is also considering whether to impose a moratorium on shale gas exploration in the UK.

Mr Greatrex tabled a question in Parliament, to which Mr Hendry replied: "Neither I nor other DECC ministers have met with representatives of the Environment Agency to discuss issues relating to hydraulic fracturing."

A DECC spokesman said: "Charles Hendry is regularly updated on the latest developments in shale gas exploration... The department's officials are working closely on these matters with the agencies regulating environmental and safety matters."

Dr Robert Gross, director of Imperial College's centre for energy policy, said: "The speed of shale gasexploration is running ahead of our knowledge of the risks, especially in America. I think DECC need to get a better handle on all the issuesaround fracking."

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