Anti-fracking campaigners have welcomed the resignation of the government’s shale gas commissioner, who quit in frustration at “ridiculous” regulations limiting drillers from causing earth tremors, which she claimed were hobbling the industry.
Natascha Engel stood down at the weekend after just six months in the post and accused ministers of being too heavily influenced by climate change campaigners such as the Swedish 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and anti-fracking protesters.
The former Labour MP told the business secretary, Greg Clark, that “a perfectly viable and exciting new industry that could help meet our carbon reduction targets, make us energy secure and provide jobs in parts of the country that really need them is in danger of withering on the vine” because the government insists fracking operations are stopped if a tremor with a magnitude of 0.5 is recorded.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, she added: “If you applied the same standards to anything else, you wouldn’t build another school or a hospital, you probably wouldn’t have any buses or lorries on the roads.”
She said she could not understand “why politicians would listen to a teenager who tells children not to go to school”.
The environmental charity Greenpeace UK said the fact that Engel appeared to have lost patience with the pace of progress was “good news”, while the former Green party leader Natalie Bennett, said it was proof that “campaigning works”.
“Faced with a climate emergency, the last thing the UK needs is an industry that will only worsen our dependence on fossil fuels for decades to come,” said Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics. “UK fracking has been a total waste of time, and we can’t afford to waste any more of it.”
Claire Stephenson, a spokeswoman for Frack Free Lancashire, said: “It is more evidence this industry is dying, if not dead. As far as we are concerned it is good riddance. More people are against fracking than are for it and opposition has steadily grown over the last four to five years. Everywhere fracking turns up there will be opposition.”
Engel formerly worked for Ineos, which has shale gas licences in North and South Yorkshire, the east Midlands and Cheshire. But her government-appointed role required her to be a contact point for residents “to take up their issues, help them navigate through the regulators, industry and government and provide accurate and timely information”.
When Greenpeace recently used the Freedom of Information Act to request email correspondence between Engel and Ineos and Cuadrilla, another fracking company, she supplied only a few documents, claiming: “I tend to deal with everything on the day and delete what has been done to avoid any huge build-ups or risk of duplication. The same is true of the few notes I take in meetings which I review in the evenings, action and throw away.”
An Ineos spokesman said the firm shared Engel’s “frustration at a lack of government action to develop a policy environment that would allow this fledgling industry to develop for the good of the UK economy”. Cuadrilla declined to comment.
Limits on tremors caused by fracking are stricter in the UK than in the US, causing fracking tests to be frequently halted. Engel believes the government’s refusal to relax the rules risks ending the practice in the UK altogether.
She told Clark: “We know shale gas can be extracted safely. We have the best regulations and regulators in the world. We know the positive impact it has on local communities, but we are choosing to listen to a powerful environmental lobby campaigning against fracking rather than allowing science and evidence to guide our policy-making.”
“Apart from its uniquely awful name”, she added, the process is “materially no different” from other methods of hydrocarbon extraction.
The government defended its rules. A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it supported the development of the UK shale industry, but added: “We’ve worked to develop world-leading regulations based on the advice of scientists and in consultation with industry. We are confident these strike the right balance in ensuring the industry can develop, while ensuring any operations are carried out safely and responsibly.”
The shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said Labour would ban fracking altogether.
“We don’t think it is responsible to lock us into that fossil fuel-related future at a time when we should be throwing our weight behind low-carbon and renewable technologies,” she said.
Engel’s resignation comes after a fortnight of protests by Extinction Rebellion brought parts of central London to a virtual standstill. The group has called on the government to reduce UK carbon emissions to net zero by 2025.