it appears that once again the public will be denied a full and unbiased exploration of the issues surrounding unconventional oil and gas development.
Select committees exist in order to hold the executive to account, representing the public interest. And in this case, the Environmental Audit Committee are likely to be the last public body to hold such an inquiry before up to 40% of Britain may be licensed for petroleum exploration and development under the 14th On-shore Oil and Gas Round.
Viewing the list of witnesses who have been called, I believe the Committee may not be intent upon an open examination of the full range of environmental evidence.
Though I would hope to be proven wrong, it appears that once again the public will be denied a full and unbiased exploration of the issues surrounding unconventional oil and gas development.
There also appears to be a bias towards the industry viewpoint in the selection of witnesses, and a complete failure to engage with the community groups opposing these developments - many of whom submitted evidence to the inquiry.
We need an independent and impartial review of the evidence
Again, I believe that this jeopardises the ability of the Committee to carry out an impartial review.
To date there has never been an demonstrably impartial investigation by a public body into the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas production:
- The Energy and Climate Change Committee's Fifth and Seventh reports (Session 2010-12) were issued before a significant amount of scientific research existed;
- The Royal Society / Royal Academy of Engineering review, produced for the Government's Chief Scientific Officer, was also issued before much of the research available today, from USA, Canada and Australia, had been published - and their report was not subject to any public consultation/involvement;
- The Public Health England review of health impacts appeared to ignore new evidence from the USA and elsewhere, and drew conclusions which - as highlighted by other public health professionals - were highly questionable (and it too was not subject to public consultation);
- A review on the climate change impacts for DECC, by Mackay and Stone, also produced results which - on the weight of available evidence - are not credible given the data used to calculate the impacts of the process; and
- The most recent review, by the Lords Economic Affairs Committee, failed to consider the available evidence on the environmental impacts of these processes, and produced arguably biased opinions.
In my view, the witnesses the Committee have selected to appear will give a 'politically acceptable' account of this issue - but not a complete review of the available evidence.
So much to be said - but will the witnesses say it?
Such a limited investigation would not answer the need for an impartial and objective 'public interest' review of the evidence now available. In particular, I believe that the witnesses selected will fail to explain:
- The large body of peer-reviewed evidence, and studies by other public health agencies which now exist on the impacts of these processes - which the Royal Society and other subsequent reviews, due to prematurity or through taking an overly narrow view of the evidence, have failed to encompass;
- The failure of DECC's strategic environmental appraisal process to consider, among other issues, the waste management implications of this policy - which (based on DECC's appraisal criteria) could potentially create more than a billion gallons of effluent, with as yet no identified treatment facility, and which in turn could create potentially millions of tonnes of hazardous wastes requiring disposal, for which there is no identified repository;
- The serious flaws in the Mackay-Stone review for DECC - which has possibly understated the climate impacts of unconventional gas development by 300% or more due to the inaccurate data used as the basis for their calculations;
- The often neglected impacts upon the environment of these processes, away from the drilling sites, and from other essential aspects of development - such as pipeline construction;
- The distinct differences which exist between the three unconventional fossil fuel technologies currently under development in Britain today - shale gas/oil, coalbed methane and underground coal gasification.
Two independent Commissions abolished (why?)
The public were denied the chance an impartial review when the Government abolished both the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and the Sustainable Development Commission, in 2011. I believe it is likely that, by now, one of those bodies would have carried out such a study.
In my view, what reviews of Government policy have taken place have been subject to unacceptable bias, and a failure to consult and hear the public's concerns - and thus do not meet the public's legitimate expectation to have an 'impartial tribunal' address their environmental concerns.
Unless the Environmental Audit Committee conduct a thorough review, taking a wide range of evidence, then this issue will not receive an impartial examination before the issuing of the new exploration and development licences.
If the Committee fail in their duty to hold the executive to account on this matter, by undertaking a review of the full range of evidence now available on the potential environmental effects of these processes, I believe that the public in communities affected by these developments will hold the Committee in contempt.
If the EAC fails, only one remedy will remain - direct action
Accordingly, the democratic process having failed to objectively hold the Government to account, and legal remedies having been effectively barred through recent reforms to judicial review, the public will have no other option than to oppose these developments directly 'on the ground'.
I do not believe that this would be a welcome or acceptable outcome. We could have done better. However, there having been no objective review which the public can have faith in, I do not see that there will be any other likely outcome - both Parliament and the Government having failed to take account of the well founded, evidentially-based concerns the public have expressed over the last few years.
The Environmental Audit Committee must carry out a full review of all the evidence pertaining to this issue - irrespective of the political sensitivities that offends.
I ask that the Committee review the range of opinion which they hear before proceeding to produce their final report.
Or, should no further time be available, that the range of witnesses heard by the Committee on January 14th is changed - removing the bias towards the industry, and including representatives from communities opposing the Government's unconventional oil and gas policies.
Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, investigator, author and lecturer.
See also: 'The Environmental Risks of Fracking' - submission to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Inquiry by Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations.