The UK government remains set on “going all out for shale”, offering the industry favourable tax treatment, and allowing for fracking to take place under national parks and people’s homes, despite growing public concern. At the European level, the UK government has found some support from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to make the case for shale gas, as they view fracking as a way to create energy security independence from Russia. But there is a huge and growing anti-fracking movement across Europe, and this is increasingly translating into political opposition too.
Environmental and public health concerns, including air pollution and gas leaks, water contamination and scarcity, increased radioactive and seismic activity, and biodiversity loss, are just some of the reasons for this. Not to mention climate change obligations, which are incompatible with a new dash for gas. The European Environmental Impact Assessment Directive already covers shale gas, and the European Commission has recently launched infringement procedures against Poland for not following these rules correctly, showing it is prepared to take action.
In 2013, as the European Commission prepared proposals for the 2030 climate change targets, there were plans to introduce specific EU legislation covering the shale gas industry. But the UK government led lobbying efforts for no new environmental or public health safeguards, saying the Commission should just clarify the existing legal framework for the industry and help with the exchange of best practice among member states. Following these lobbying efforts, the European Commission came forward with a non-binding Recommendation rather than a Directive on fracking. It also published a Communication and an Impact Assessment, and has been drawing up a reference document on the exchange of best available techniques and risk management for the hydrocarbons sector (BREF).
The UK government has even lobbied, alongside fossil fuel giants including BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil, for the withdrawal of this BREF document, having previously claimed it was in favour of exchanging best practice. Despite this, the Commission still plans to publish the document by May 2018. While the European Commission’s Recommendation on Fracking is non-binding, and the Communication takes note that there are gaps in EU law when it comes to unconventional hydrocarbons, the Commission has made clear in a previous legal assessment that existing EU environmental legislation does apply to fracking practices from planning to cessation.
The fracking industry is also covered by EU rules when it comes to the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals under the REACH Regulation. And in 2015, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) added a new use category for “oil and gas field fracturing products” to chemical registrations to help increase transparency in the disclosure of the composition of fracking fluid. The UK has made every effort to water down EU legislation on fracking, while also pursuing deregulation at home, cutting environmental, planning and public health safeguards. In this context, existing safeguards from Europe remain an important check on the fracking industry. If the UK leaves the EU, it will be left to this Government to regulate the industry without European oversight.
In a 2015 Eurobarometer, which surveyed 12 EU regions where shale gas exploitation has been permitted or planned, the European public made clear that they were not satisfied with non-binding recommendations, with respondents declaring that the least preferred approach. As Green MEPs we will continue to lobby alongside our colleagues in the Greens / European Free Alliance group for the EU to do more. In February, we supported a successful amendment to a report in plenary that urged Member States to follow the precautionary principle and not authorise any new hydraulic fracturing operations in the EU.
This demonstrates clearly that as a part the EU we can work with the growing movement across Europe that is opposing the corporate interests of the shale gas industry, retain the existing safeguards of EU legislation while pushing for more protection, and work together in the European Parliament to stand up for our environment, public health, and climate. I posed the question this week on the radio: why would we throw that away?