Frack The Public: UK Shale Gets US Style PR Makeover


Fracking is an incendiary issue: fractious campaigners are terrified drilling for shale gas will cause earthquakes and contaminate our water supplies. But the chancellor George Osborne and the industry both tell us fracking could fuel an economic recovery and protect the environment.

Lord Chris Smith (pictured) has now stepped into the breach, promising to bring harmony, truth and hope where there has only been discord about the real economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing, apparent errors spread about the environmental risks and doubts about the claims from vested interests.

He has also just been selected by The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee to give evidence on an inquiry into the environmental risks of fracking next week.

Smith served as head of the Environment Agency, the government agency set up “to protect or enhance the environment, taken as a whole”. He was also the first politician to come out as gay, back in 1984 when that was a big deal, and also the first to confirm he is HIV positive. For this and other reasons, he is the sort of person that people like you might trust.

Shale Task Force

This is why Smith has been hired to lead a new Task Force on Shale Gas which has been set up to deliver an independent review of the risks and benefits of fracking. He will be joined by his good friend Stephen Tindale, a former director of Greenpeace and the environmental expert Professor Ernest Rutter.

The task force is very transparent and open about its funding. The website states very clearly that it has already received £650,000 from the fracking industry, including the leading shale gas explorers Cuadrilla and Centrica, French oil giant Total, and chemical giant Dow.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no longer any need to worry. Decent chaps are looking into it and there is no real need to look into them. We are in safe hands. But wait a minute. The website also says that this new task force is being run by a London public relations firm. We’re not about to get fooled again, are we?

Is the energy industry just getting smarter? After all, the International Policy Network was exposed for accepting funding from oil giant ExxonMobil when attacking climate science, and they no longer exist. Lord Lawson at the Global Warming Policy Foundation cannot shake off the suspicion resulting from his secretive funding arrangements.

Is the Task Force on Shale Gas merely hiding its vested interests in plain sight? After all, we have known since Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince in 1513 that the public tend to believe what you say as much as what you do. What is really going on here?

Lord Browne is the chairman of Cuadrilla, one of the funders of the task force. Browne is the man who introduced cost-cutting at BP so severe that it contributed to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, considered by many as the worst environmental disaster in US history and the most extreme oil spill in the world.

Browne was also chairman of the Royal Academy for Engineering which in 2012, one year after he stood down, released a report calling for the implementation of regulation on fracking to make it safe in the UK – a report ignored by the government and industry.

Many Meetings

Browne and Smith have met before. Lord Browne persuaded the then-environment minister, Owen Paterson, to broker a series of meetings with Smith when he was still head of the Environment Agency. During these meetings, Smith made significant concessions to the fracking boss.

Smith told us: “The minutes to that meeting are in the public domain, due to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. It was a normal meeting, under the remit of my position in the agency discussing regulatory matters to do with the industry.”

He also denied that any favourable outcome from that meeting would have influenced Lord Browne when the task force was looking for a chairman. “The meeting was under the remit my position gave me, and was a normal arrangement. It had nothing to do with any other motive.”

Smith receives £75,000 a year for one day’s work a week. The advisory panel are also paid £25,000 a year for one day a month. Tindale currently sells his expertise at £500 a day, advising energy companies on environmental issues. He was also policy adviser to Lord Smith when the latter was shadow environment secretary.

Smith’s task force is actually run by a public relations firm called Edelman. The same company also represents The All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas. The satirical magazine Private Eye recently reported that this panel is generously funded by the fracking industry, including Cuadrilla.

Dan Byles MP, its chairman, has said: “The APPG is not a cheerleader for unconventional oil and gas. It is a cheerleader for the facts.”

Over in the US, Edelman has been exposed by Greenpeace as the coordinators of the campaign for TransCanada to gain public support for its controversial Energy East tar sands export pipeline. And they represent major US energy companies, including the American Petroleum Institute, Chevron and General Electric.

Another Task Force

Smith’s is not the only task force in the UK. There is an apparently unrelated task force in the North West of Lancashire actively promoting fracking as we speak. The North West Energy Task Force (NWE), based in Blackpool, wants to reach an “understanding [of] how the responsible extraction of natural gas from Lancashire’s shale can be used to create jobs, generate economic growth and boost local revenues.”

Lancashire fracking site. Photo: KA via Creative Commons

This task force is made up of local business and community leaders, including retired commercial directors and business federation board members. It is also funded by Cuadrilla, as well as Centrica Energy.

Lord Smith, however, recently chaired a meeting in Lancashire to debate the positives and negatives surrounding shale excavation in the North West, with attendees including business leaders Gary Lovatt, Mike Damms and Robert Green – all of whom sit on the NWE Task Force.

There is no mention of the environmental impacts of fracking on the NWE website. We asked a spokesperson for the NWE why this was the case. They said: “The North West Energy Task Force believes in the safe and responsible development of natural gas from shale.

The Royal Society, the Royal Academy for Engineering, the UK Government and the Scottish Government’s Independent Expert Scientific Panel have all said that they believe natural gas from shale operations can be developed safely in the UK ‘as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation’.”

That last bit is quite important. The Royal Academy for Engineering really did say it was safe as long as best practices were enforced through regulation. But the government ignored the report in 2012 and failed to introduce the regulations, which some might argue means it is not safe. 

So where exactly did these task forces come from? After all, it seems any group can call itself one. The term itself actually derives from the American Navy and just means a team of people dedicated to a particular task. 

Well, in the US state of Pennsylvania, which is at the centre of a ‘shale revolution’, many of these task forces seem heavily involved in a public relations battle between environmentalists, the public and the fracking industry. According to the PennState public library, there are currently 20 registered task forces operating throughout the state.

The Centre for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), for example, acts as the APPG does in promoting the responsible excavation of shale gas by offering a wide range of expert analyses. They are the largest of the task forces operating in Pennsylvania and also have the support of the US’s largest green group, the Environmental Defence Fund (EDF).

However, the CSSD became mired in controversy as it surprisingly supported the highly unpopular and industry-led hydraulic fracturing bill in 2012, which catalysed the fracking boom throughout the state. 

Shale Lobby

The CSSD was open about being primarily funded by big energy companies including Shell. But a new report by NGO the Public Accountability Initiative has accused the CSSD of being a front for big energy firms to promote fracking, with the apparent support of green groups like the EDF.

Environmentalists are unlikely to be reassured by Smith’s task force. Simon Clydesdale, a Greenpeace energy campaigner, refused to comment on Tindale. But he was obviously unhappy about the task force: “Both Greenpeace and, we believe, the British public would welcome more research that's genuinely independent and robust.

But it’s hard to see how this can be achieved by setting up an ‘independent’ task force bankrolled by the shale lobby with an in-built majority of fracking supporters. To a lot of people, this is going to look like an admission that genuinely independent enquiry had to be avoided for some reason, and that’s not a good look.”

But is it actually possible for this task force to remain impartial, regardless of their industry funders and their use of a PR firm who specialises in this field?

Well, we asked Professor Stephan Lewandowsky from the University of Bristol who also happens to be concerned about these groups who are funded by vested interests: “It is well known that vested interests sometimes offer rewards for pre-ordained ‘scientific’ answers. For example, there is at least one known instance of a ‘think tank’ offering a $10,000 fee to anyone prepared to write a paper critical of the IPCC’s assessment report in 2007.

What is more pernicious, and likely more pertinent here, is that even when impartiality is intended, funding may affect the outcome. It is entirely possible that those subtle biases may arise in this instance as well, even if one grants the intent of impartiality.”

@Brendanmontague and @Richardheasman4

Photo: PA/STEFFAN ROUSSEAU via Creative Commons