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Fracking giants grasp for dirty Brexit bonanza

The fracking industry is determined to limp ahead, despite record public opposition in the UK and fierce fightbacks from campaigners from North Yorkshire to Surrey and beyond.

British police have become “glorified security guards to police a practice that many of the public we represent oppose,” North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner Arfon Jones has admitted in relation to fracking protests. The police chief added that he opposes “providing security to a well-funded private enterprise free of charge.”

It’s a timely intervention. While the Government has been less vocal in its support of fracking over the last year, the state has been prepared to spend millions of pounds on policing fracking resistance across the country, protecting corporate interests against the wishes of local communities.

And as we head into 2018, we see fracking companies trying to exploit Brexit through direct and indirect lobbying and by taking advantage of fears around energy security.

Leading the way is INEOS. The multinational chemicals company turned fracking giant has a turnover of $40 billion and is well connected to those in power. It has fracking licence interests across North and South Yorkshire, the East Midlands and Cheshire and is not shy about wanting to be “at the very forefront of this transformational industry”.

When Scotland banned fracking in October 2017, INEOS moved quickly. The company and its business partner Reach are now seeking a judicial review to overturn the ban. Tom Pickering, Operations Director of INEOS Shale said of the legal challenge that “if Scotland wants to continue to be considered as a serious place to do business” it needed to follow “proper procedures” and offer financial compensation to companies like INEOS and Reach which have “invested significantly” in the development of unconventional oil and gas development.

The firm is also seeking a court order so it can carry out seismic surveys at the National Trust owned Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire, after the Trust refused to grant access.

INEOS has also sought Government intervention on two of its planning applications for exploration wells in Marsh Lane, Derbyshire, and Harthill, south Yorkshire. Its appeals will now be heard at public inquiries after the company complained the local councils were taking too long to reach their decisions.

Pickering told the Derbyshire Times that INEOS “has always prioritised local people” and that they were “disappointed that a strong shale presence in the region has not been more welcomed given the recent manufacturing decline in the region.”

But, as the Tory Derbyshire County Council leader, Barry Lewis pointed out, INEOS “is the very organisation which has pushed to have a local decision taken out of local hands.”

INEOS has also secured a draconian High Court injunction against any anti-fracking protestors who obstruct its fracking activity. Two campaigners – Joe Corré and Joe Boyd -have said they will keep trying to fight the injunction in the courts after permission for an appeal was refused in December.

Fighting off “efforts to regulate shale gas”

For fracking firms like INEOS – as for many corporations – Brexit is something to exploit to the fullest, with the Department For Exiting the European Union (DExEU) meetings seemingly happy to oblige. Analysis released by Corporate Europe Observatory and Global Justice Now found that 70 per cent of all meetings held by DExEU ministers between October 2016 and June 2017, were with business representatives.

DExEU ministers had three meetings with INEOS between October and December 2016, including a chemical sector roundtable with other companies in October 2016. On the same day as INEOS’s November 2016 meeting with Robin Walker, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Walker assured the Chemical Industries Association Conference that the UK's negotiating position would be to continue to work towards “freer trade across the globe.”

 

The minister invited industry representatives to “continue to engage directly with my office, directly with the Government” and said that Brexit offered “a potential to minimise bureaucratic legislative burdens.”

Public records of the meetings between INEOS and DExEU minsters list the purpose of the meetings as “Discussion on United Kingdom's Exit from EU” but do not offer any more indication of what was discussed – and openDemocracy’s attempts to obtain more detail on the content of the INEOS meetings through FOI requests have been refused.

As Vicky Cann of the Corporate Europe Observatory points out, the ministerial meeting data is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. “It doesn't give you a real sense of the partnership working which will be happening throughout government, or the reality of what this is going to mean for business and what business wants,” she says.

“That is not to say that that is all malign or dodgy but I think there is a whole picture of lobbying going on that none of us are really aware of and where it's very hard to get the information... it's highly plausible that decisions and polices will be made without proper scrutiny, without proper balance.”

We do know – thanks to an investigation by Friends of the Earth – that INEOS has been pushing the government to use Brexit as a chance to exempt the chemicals sector from climate policy costs and green taxes through the Chemistry Growth Partnership.

The fracking industry has supporters at the top of DExEU. David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has expressed support for fracking in the past, and at the end of October Lord Martin Callanan was appointed Minister of State at the Department. Callanan previously complained that the European Parliament “wants every tiny exploration [on shale] to be governed by onerous environmental impact assessments.” He was the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group from 2011-2014. The Group's Taking the EU in a new direction report. which carries a foreword from Callanan, proudly states that it “has fought off efforts to regulate against Shale gas.”

Steve Baker, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at DExEU, has previously stated that “We should be going through a shale gas revolution”. He was a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas which over the four years it was active received thousands of pounds from INEOS and other fracking companies like Cuadrilla and IGas.

It's not just on the UK side where the fossil fuel industry is playing a role in the corporate capture of Brexit. Research from Corporate Europe Observatory shows the gas lobby spent over €100 million in Brussels in 2016. Groups working to challenge the gas industry have spent just €3.4million.

Keeping the lights on

It's not just lobbying of ministers that fracking companies like INEOS are relying on. They have also sought to exploit the 'take control' narrative that dominated campaigns to leave the European Union, arguing that the UK needs to produce more of its own energy and that fracking operated by corporate interests, instead of greener community-led energy, is the way to do this.

This narrative also plays into some remainers' fears about how Brexit will impact on trade and energy security and whether we will be able to 'keep the lights on'.

Even before the referendum, INEOS's billionaire chair and founder, Jim Ratcliffe argued that “the Brits are perfectly capable of managing the Brits and don’t need Brussels telling them how to manage things... I just don’t believe in the concept of a United States of Europe.”

He said that “layers and layers” of European legislation were making the continent cumbersome, inefficient and expensive.

Ratcliffe relocated INEOS' headquarters to Switzerland in 2010 in a bid to save on taxes but returned many of the company's businesses back to London in 2015, citing a “friendlier” government.

Pickering has argued that the result of 2016's referendum has put fracking in a more positive light. “I have seen a shift in the tone after the Brexit vote. People are saying that ‘you just need to be getting on with this. We want you to do it properly, but this stuff matters now’,” he told the Scotsman newspaper.

“People understand that when you present the figure to them that over 50 per cent of our gas is being imported that is a cheque we are writing out every day to another nation.”

It's not just INEOS hoping to play into this narrative: “An independent Britain needs an independent supply of energy. Security of supply becomes even more important now,” Stephen Bowler, chief executive of gas developer IGas, told Reuters just after the referendum.

But fracking companies have their work cut out. Thanks to unwavering campaigns and direct action, political will on the issue seems significantly diminished, despite the Conservative's election manifesto assertion that shale energy “could play a crucial role in rebalancing our economy”.

The Government's cognitive dissonance on this issue has been well outlined by David Powell at the New Economics Foundation. The Industrial Strategy it published in November only gave fracking a brief mention and its delayed Clean Growth Strategy, published in October, doesn't mention it at all.

However, less than two weeks after the Clean Growth Strategy was released Theresa May answered a question about Scotland’s fracking ban with this statement at Prime Minister's Questions: “I think that shale gas does have the potential to power economic growth in this country. I think it will support thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industries and in other sectors and it will provide a new domestic energy source.”

The fact that it has taken fracking companies so long to get not very far in the UK is testament to the people who have been uncompromising in their resistance for many years. The industry is poised to limp ahead in 2018 – at least in England – but, however Brexit pans out, we know that there will be people there to meet it.

About the author

Amy Hall is a freelance journalist based in Brighton and a columnist for openDemocracyUK, writing about the environment, democracy, corporate power and the British state in the wake of Brexit. She is a member of Shoal Collective, a newly-formed cooperative of independent writers and researchers writing for social justice and a world beyond capitalism.


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