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For Immediate Release
Press Release March 24th 2021: 

Integrity and independence of DfE-sponsored Hatch Regeneris report into fracking in Northern Ireland called into question following revelations that Regeneris falsely claimed in its equivalent report for the Welsh Government in 2015 that ‘Public Health England’ and ‘Public Health Wales’ were of the view that fracking could be “mitigated to an acceptable level”. 



Serious questions of trust, independence and credibility now hang over how the Department for Economy awarded a research study into the ‘economic, societal and environmental impacts of onshore petroleum exploration and production in Northern Ireland’ to Hatch Regeneris, on the grounds that it had conducted similar research for the Welsh Government in 2015, after it was discovered this week that Regeneris had falsely claimed in the Welsh report into ‘socio-economic impact of unconventional gas in Wales’ that ‘Public Health England’ and ‘Public Health Wales’ were of the view “that effects of individual exploration activities can be identified, assessed and mitigated to an acceptable level”. No such view was expressed in the ‘Public Health England’ or ‘Public Health Wales’ reports referred to by Regeneris. [see Footnote 1]

 

The false assertion that fracking could be “mitigated to an acceptable level” is of crucial importance given that the Northern Ireland Executive is set to decide on a new policy on Petroleum licensing. The outcome of the Hatch Regeneris report commissioned by DfE will be used as the basis for helping the Northern Ireland Executive choose its preferred option but the credibility of Hatch Regeneris following the revelation now seriously undermines this process. On December 21st 2018, the Department controversially published its opinion that, falsely, it is “by no means the case” that there are “actual” adverse environmental and health impacts from fracking in Northern Ireland and that fracking can be mitigated “to an acceptable level”, without defining for whom the level of fracking is acceptable. However, it is now clear that there is a DfE policy of systematically continuing a narrative that ‘fracking can be mitigated to an acceptable level’, when all the latest scientific evidence points to the exact opposite.

 

The Regeneris Welsh report, with clear disregard for the well-established  precautionary principle,  further disingenuously stated  that “it will not be until the exploration industry has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can undertake these activities in a manner that does not lead to unacceptable adverse effects, that public acceptability of the technologies will be achieved”, with no consideration for the fact that a petroleum licence is for 30 years. It is well understood in legal terms that once a license is given, then industry is only obliged to apply ‘best practice’ and ‘as low as reasonably possible’ operational mitigation, which runs completely counter to the precautionary principle. It is a choice of preempting damage or regulating damage and the fear and experience to date is that the fossil fuel sector prefers regulation which it can then ignore and challenge at every level in the courts.  Once a fracking company has a petroleum licence and if, on climate or public health grounds, this practice subsequently needs to be stopped, then the country is financially exposed to expensive litigation which can run into the hundreds of millions, if not billions, via such tools as the Energy Charter Treaty on the grounds that the companies had an expectation of profit - and that is even if the ban is done on climate or public health grounds. For example, on 20 January 2021 German electricity generation company RWE filed a €1.4 billion request for arbitration against the Netherlands at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) based on the Dutch government's decision to phase out coal for electricity generation. For Regeneris to encourage a regulatory monitoring/best practice/’as low as reasonably possible’ approach to fracking by measuring the climate, environmental and public-health damage caused instead of considering the pre-emptive/precautionary principle option to ban fracking,  limits the margin of manoeuvre open to regulatory bodies. That is also why any false and unsubstantiated claim attributed to UK public bodies ‘Public Health England’ and ‘Public Health Wales’ by Regeneris that fracking can be “mitigated to an acceptable level” seriously undermines the independence of any further studies Hatch Regeneris undertakes on the same subject.

 

What is of even more concern is that, with no time for mature reflection on the implications of the Northern Ireland Assembly motion to ban all onshore petroleum licensing, DfE, in a breach of trust and duty of care, had awarded Hatch Regeneris the report on the economic impacts of fracking within 24 hours of the vote. Yet, the DfE has only set terms of reference that include assessment of 3 development scenarios  (the existing policy)  with no assessment of the scenario of implementing an outright ban on petroleum licensing (a new policy) as proposed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is feared that it will now be more difficult for Minister Dodds to propose a fracking ban to the Northern Ireland Executive if the Hatch Regeneris Report does not even consider the economic impacts of such a ban. Campaigners feel that DfE is ‘gaming the system’ to arrive at a predetermined outcome if the report is only considering different levels of development scenarios, all of which involve onshore petroleum exploration. The Department for Economy officials cannot be allowed to impose their own solutions where there are huge adverse climate and local environmental and public health impacts and where there is no social license for petroleum licensing either at the Assembly level or at a local level.

 

Graham Miller, Director of Heat, Minerals and Operations and Energy Group in the Department for Economy and his colleague Lorraine Fleming, who heads up Minerals and Petroleum Policy, both addressed Fermanagh and Omagh District Councillors, along with Neil Evans and Kelly Watson from Hatch Regeneris on February 25th. Graham Miller told the councillors that they were pleased to award the research contract to Hatch Regeneris, particularly as Hatch has conducted similar research for the Welsh Government in 2015. The Research contract was awarded for 65,810 pounds. On fact-checking the economic report Regeneris had undertaken prior to the policy against fracking being chosen as the preferred option by the Welsh Government, the serious mistruths by Regeneris regarding ‘Public Health England’ and ‘Public Health Wales’ were discovered. 

 

Kelly Watson of Hatch Regeneris told the councillors that it would be drawing upon the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) approach in its study. However, Article 5 and Annex 1b of the SEA Directive are very clear that any assessment of the significant environmental impacts of reasonable alternatives of a plan must include “the current state of the environment and the likely evolution thereof without implementation of the plan or programme”. The assessment should therefore include the consequences of not fracking Northern Ireland - the no development alternative - and not just all development alternatives.

 

At the meeting of February 25th, Hatch Regeneris repeatedly refused to confirm the timescale of impacts their study would cover even though Petroleum Licenses in Northern Ireland are awarded for a period of 30 years (5-year exploration stage, 5-year development stage and 20-year production stage). Regeneris wrote in its final summary in the Welsh report “Many of the disbenefits associated with development that local communities experience are likely to be concentrated during the exploratory and preparation period and hence short term in their nature.”How can Regeneris make such a claim if it does not assess the research on the long-term impacts of the full 30 years of a petroleum license? Is that not a case of accentuating the positive for the fracking industry while playing down the negative? 

 

In addition, Neil Evans from Hatch Regeneris, referring to current available research on fracking, stated that some of that was US-based evidence which was being gathered for developments which very often are in a slightly different context. To cast aspersions, even obliquely, on US-based evidence on fracking impacts is unacceptable given that the US is where so much fracking has been taking place over the past 10-15 years. The latest peer-reviewed scientific studies, found in 2019 that one third of the total increase in methane emissions from all sources globally over the previous decade was coming from US fracked gas (shale gas) - the world’s largest single super emitter of Methane. Scientists have also found that methane emissions are accelerating global warming because methane has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 87 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Scientists have shown that, unlike the case for carbon dioxide,the Climate System responds quickly to a reduction in methane emissions which, along with CO2 reduction measures, could provide the opportunity to immediately slow the rate of global warming by around half a degree celsius. The scientific evidence of serious health and environmental harm from fracking already irrefutably exists and no acceptable mitigation of fracking has been implemented anywhere in the world. 

 

The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA ) into further onshore oil and gas licensing undertaken by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in December 2013 referred to “acceptable” in terms of the overall objectives of the UK’s draft licensing plan stating that “the main objectives of the draft Licensing Plan are to enable a further contribution towards the comprehensive exploration and appraisal of UK oil and gas resources and the economic development of identified reserves, together with enabling further gas storage capacity in hydrocarbon reservoirs, without compromising the biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and the interests of nature and heritage conservation, and other material assets and users”. 

When considering the alternative of “No award of Licenses”, the SEA stated “This option proposes that no award of licences would take place during the licensing round. Such an option is incompatible with the main objectives of the Plan.” It is in those terms that the SEA considers mitigation measures as “acceptable”. And to reinforce this point even more, the SEA promotes an ALARP approach to a precautionary one. It states “Excluding sensitive receptors and using a precautionary distance may have the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the area that is available for licensing, depending on the locational criteria used, which would make it difficult for the alternative to contribute towards the objectives of the licensing plan (to make comprehensive exploration and appraisal of UK oil and gas resources and the economic development of identified reserves)”. The preferred mitigation measure proposed in the SEA is that “the Operators should adopt the principle of reducing emissions to as low a level as reasonably practicable (ALARP)”.

The Northern Ireland Department for Economy has stated that its policy objective is pro-licensing: “DfE’s policy objective is to maximise successful and expeditious exploration and exploitation of Northern Ireland’s oil and gas resources, and all decisions will be made with regard to that policy.”

What is now clear is that “acceptable” cannot be allowed to be defined only in terms of what is acceptable to the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland under its existing policy objective but also in terms of what is acceptable on public health and climate grounds at the policy assessment stage as has happened in Scotland and Wales. It is also clear that the temptation to take an as-low-as-reasonably-possible (ALARP) approach in climate mitigation at a policy level instead of a precautionary approach is also breaching the EU  Precautionary Principle as obliged under Article 191 TFEU and further explained in an EU Communication in 2000. The Precautionary Principle aims at ensuring a higher level of environmental protection through preventative decision-taking in the case of risk

 

In June 2018, Public Health Wales informed the Welsh Government that “gaps in the evidence base do exist” and that “a proportionate precautionary approach is warranted” going on to state: “It is clear, therefore ,that there is a need to consider at an early stage not just the direct risks to health and the environment from the technical aspects of extraction but wider social and health impacts. In Lancashire, a local Health Impact Assessment (HIA) was undertaken to look at the potential impact of a proposal to drill while Health Protection Scotland, at the request of Scottish Government, undertook a HIA to look at wider health impacts to inform policy developments prior to any proposed extraction.”

 

It is now clear that a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) should be undertaken at the policy stage of Strategic Environmental Assessment to aid policy makers in deciding if fracking should be allowed in the first place; if HIA is only applied at the project level (the Environmental Impact Assessment) then the cumulative health impacts of fracking on a regional or national level are ignored and regulatory bodies are faced with having only the choice to impose best practice on an industry that cannot be stopped easily due to the constant threat of litigation from the powerful fossil-fuel sector, even if the level of climate and public health damage is socially unacceptable at a local and national level. 

 

It must be remembered that 3 Judicial Reviews were already  taken by fracking company Tamboran against what are now the Departments for Economy (DfE) and Infrastructure (DfI) and were only dropped on 17 January 2018 - "amicably resolved by all three parties".  It is highly questionable how Tamboran could reapply for a petroleum license in September 2016 and only withdraw its 3 Judicial Reviews once its licence application had first been validated by DfE on November 12th, 2017 - 2 months earlier. No agreement on why the 3 cases were withdrawn was ever made public, but one lesson learned is that if the Northern Ireland fracking licence applicants are very willing to go down the legal route even before licences are given to them, imagine what they will be like if they do obtain 30-year licences. And this move by Tamboran was not a once-off. In September 2018, the petrochemical company INEOS lost a legal challenge against the Scottish Government’s position on fracking, arguing that the Government was exceeding their powers and lacked the legal competence to impose an effective ban.

 

The biggest indictment of the Welsh report by Regeneris was that the Welsh Government concluded that

“However, the Welsh Government has set a target of generating 70% of electricity demand from renewable sources by 2030.Whilst we acknowledge the role for gas as a transition fuel until it is replaced by renewables and low carbon nuclear generation, introducing an additional supply of petroleum to Wales could displace investment in renewable energy systems”,

going on to state:

 “The evidence from the 2015 Regeneris study presented in the consultation is that economic impacts are likely to be short-lived and transitory, with many of the high-paid technical roles being filled from outside of the local community. We are unwilling to risk the future well-being of communities when the potential for long term jobs is small. We recognise a community benefit package, similar to the Shale Wealth Fund, could benefit local communities. However, such a package would not negate the potential environmental and climate change impacts which petroleum production would create”. 

In conclusion the Welsh policy set out in the consultation adopted  “To not undertake any new petroleum licensing in Wales, or support applications for hydraulic fracturing petroleum licence consents.”



End.

Footnotes

1. Following devolution, the Welsh Government launched a consultation on Petroleum extraction policy in Wales (2 July 2018) seeking views of its proposed policy on petroleum extraction, including fracking. One study that fed into that was ‘Socio-economic Impact of Unconventional Gas in Wales’, to assess the recoverable reserves of unconventional gas in Wales and the economic benefits, prepared in 2015 by Regeneris, AMEC and Cardiff University, which examined the potential regional economic benefits of the development of unconventional gas. The 2015 report also generated a series of scenarios, which were then examined to estimate direct and indirect economic effects associated with three different scales of unconventional gas activity. The focus in the economic modelling was on local effects in terms of employment and income support.

However, the problem with that Welsh Regeneris report is that it stated in section 3.34: “It is the view of DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change], the existing regulators, Public Health England (PHE), Public Health Wales (PHW) and the conclusion of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of onshore oil and gas licensing that the application and enforcement of existing regulatory requirements can be expected to ensure that effects of individual exploration activities can be identified, assessed and mitigated to an acceptable level. However, it will not be until the exploration industry has an opportunity to demonstrate that it can undertake these activities in a manner that does not lead to unacceptable adverse effects, that public acceptability of the technologies will be achieved. ”

 

However, neither PHW (page 18) nor PHE, in its draft (october 2013) and final (june 2014)  reports stated that it was their view that  the “effects of individual exploration activities can be identified, assessed and mitigated to an acceptable level”. PHE concluded “We conclude that the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health in the vicinity of shale gas extraction sites will be low if shale gas extraction is properly run and regulated. Where potential risks have been identified in the literature, the reported problems are typically a result of operational failure and a poor regulatory environment” PHE wrote of using “best practice” and “best available technology” to “minimise” risks, which is not the same as “acceptable”.

 

And the SEA (December 2013) actually referred to “acceptable” in terms of the overall objectives of the draft licensing plan which are that “the main objectives of the draft Licensing Plan are to enable a further contribution towards the comprehensive exploration and appraisal of UK oil and gas resources and the economic development of identified reserves, together with enabling further gas storage capacity in hydrocarbon reservoirs, without compromising the biodiversity, ecosystem functioning and the interests of nature and heritage conservation, and other material assets and users”. 

The SEA actually states:

“However, given the importance of achieving the other objectives of the plan, and that the activities that follow licensing will need to meet a range of regulatory requirements (which, when applied and enforced, will ensure that effects at the project level will be identified, assessed and mitigated to an acceptable level), the unrestricted alternative (i.e. the draft Licensing Plan as proposed) may prove to be the preferable alternative”.

The context of the sentence means that Regeneris, through clever word games, is attempting to give the impression that it is the accepted view of DECC, PHE and PHW “that effects of individual exploration activities can be identified, assessed and mitigated to an acceptable level”, when this is clearly not the case.

When considering the alternative of “No award of Licenses”, the SEA stated “This option proposes that no award of licences would take place during the licensing round. Such an option is incompatible with the main objectives of the Plan.” It is in those terms that the SEA considers mitigation measures as “acceptable”. And to reinforce this point even more, the SEA promotes an ALARP approach to a precautionary one. It states “Excluding sensitive receptors and using a precautionary distance may have the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the area that is available for licensing, depending on the locational criteria used, which would make it difficult for the alternative to contribute towards the objectives of the licensing plan (to make comprehensive exploration and appraisal of UK oil and gas resources and the economic development of identified reserves)”. The preferred mitigation measure proposed in the SEA is that “the Operators should adopt the principle of reducing emissions to as low a level as reasonably practicable (ALARP)”.

 



Contact:
John McElligott
Safety Before LNG
(087-2804474)
SafetyBeforeLNG@hotmail.com