8 May 2019 — Spinwatch
As an exercise in coordinated media spin, it was a tour de force. UK shale gas commissioner Natascha Engel’s resignation last weekend just seven months into a two-year taxpayer-funded appointment had astute industry PR gloves all over it.
First came an exclusive interview with the Mail on Sunday, which uncritically carried the top-line message of an industry and a powerful billionaire clearly furious at Conservative energy secretary Greg Clark’s refusal to roll over and relax what former MP Engel called ‘ridiculous’ and ‘unscientific’ earthquake safety limits. Riddled with inaccuracies, its publication late Saturday eve ensured blanket coverage on the wires Sunday, reprinted even in the Guardian.
A few soft ball interviews by national and regional BBC outlets with Engel followed, shored up by leading lobbyist, Ken Cronin of oil and gas trade body UKOOG on primetime Radio 4 Today echoing Engel’s claims with virtually no serious critique by the interviewer or countervailing voices. BBC Online also headlined Engel’s ‘ridiculous rules throttling fracking’ claim, adding a lengthy quote from Cuadrilla boss Francis Egan blasting the government’s ‘embarrassing’ intransigence.
The Times obliged with an op-ed in which Engel claimed fracking was the quickest way to get our carbon emissions down and bolster ‘absolutely negligible’ renewables. Even The Sun splashed out with a ‘Shale Fail’ editorial touting fracking’s ability to cut emissions by replacing ‘high-polluting coal and oil’ (yes, really). ‘The loss of fracking tsar must be a wake-up call for flip-flopping ministers,’ it thundered. Dominic Lawson in the Daily Mail wrote of how the Kremlin must be howling in laughter at the government’s craven surrender to environmental lobbyists.
Further farce came via London’s talkback airwaves. Engel told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that 16-year-old climate Greta Thunberg and her school strikers needed to get behind fracking to help save our climate if they were truly serious about cutting carbon emissions.
Hysterical and ‘scaremongering’ eco-activists should be ‘fracking’s no 1 fan’ she told talkBACK’s Julia Hartley-Brewer, herself on a roll after two weeks of castigating Extinction Rebellion’s for disruption to Londoners.
Meanwhile across the pond, both Bloomberg and the New York Times repeated Engel had quit ‘over rules so restrictive they have made it all but impossible for the industry to grow’. A comparison with the US’s successful fracking industry’s more lenient earth tremor magnitude limits of 2.0 and higher on the Richter scale versus the UK’s strict 0.5ml ‘Traffic Light System’ (at which drilling must stop for 18 hours) featured prominently.
Engel’s focus on fracking’s unfair seismic limits – including likening 0.5 to ‘a rumble in a train tunnel’ – seldom veered off-course and few challenged her on it. Radio 4’s Paddy O’Connell was a rare exception, giving voice to resident groups who want the precautionary safety limit to remain because of their concerns over possible water contamination from drilling and fracking fluids below and above ground. He also cited leading geologist Professor Stuart Haszeldine who warned after Cuadrilla’s operations recorded 17 mini-tremors last October: “The practical significance is not whether these tremors are felt at the surface or not, but in the potential to damage the borehole, and the potential to create gas pathways from the shale towards larger faults, towards shallower aquifers, and to the surface.”
Engel’s reply to O’Connell was textbook fracking PR. ‘There’s really no evidence. America has fracked over a million wells, and there hasn’t been any contamination of drinking water… Our water table is safe from other extractive industries – there’s no other extraction that people worry about with water contamination – it’s no different from fracking,’ she said, citing no evidence whatsoever.
“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.
“And that’s really the issue I am trying to raise – this is no different from any other mineral or stone or anything else out of the ground. But what is unique about it is that it’s been the target of a very well-funded environmental campaign that is actually raising its own profile at the expense of actually getting British industry off the ground.”
Leaving aside the obvious irony of her defending a multimillion-pound industry that has made a lot of lobbyists rich influencing our politiciansover the past eight years – and enjoys access that most activists can only dream of – this attempt to equate a highly controversial industry with everyday activities like taking a bus is also textbook fracking spin.
Deleted emails and diaries disclosure
Amidst the wall-to-wall media coverage we also learned that Engel had refused to be interviewed by Channel 4, who’d wanted to ask why she’d told Greenpeace in a Freedom of Information (FOI) response that she’d routinely deleted her emails and chucked away meeting notes as shale gas commissioner – a possible breach of government transparency rules.
No interview was forthcoming either for journalist Ruth Hayhurst of the website Drill or Drop, whose own FOI request from early March asking the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to release Engel’s diary details since October 2018 was finally made public on 26th April, the day before Engel quit. Hayhurst, one of the most expert chroniclers of the UK’s shale gas industry in recent years, had been asking for five months to interview Engel, without success.
Frustratingly, not one news outlet picked up Engel’s FOI diary release – easily findable via Google on the What Do They Know website and Drill or Drop’s in-depth analysis post published soon after news of Engel’s resignation broke Sunday. (Few also bothered to tell audiences Engel had been a consultant for INEOS, the UK’s biggest wannabe frackers, just months before being appointed commissioner.)
This failure especially by public broadcasters to carry out rudimentary journalism effectively allowed Engel a free pass in being held to account. For her diary disclosure reveals that far from fulfilling her job brief to listen and act as a contact point for concerned fracking-affected communities, in reality only 10 percent of her meetings between October 2018 to 10 March 2019 were with residents and local groups. The rest were with industry and government.
Which begs the question of Engel’s insistence in her resignation statement that a ‘small but loud’ anti-fracking environmental movement did ‘not represent local residents nor the wider population’. Likewise her claim to the Mail on Sunday and others outlets that ‘a minority’ of residents opposed to fracking was heavily outweighed by others who were ‘very, very angry’ that its supposed benefits, including jobs, could be slipping out of grasp.
On talkBACK radio, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley criticised Engel for her lack of objectivity and for spending too much time with the fracking companies.
‘It’s rubbish – I spent most of my time speaking to local residents and talking to local businesses,’ she told host Julia Hartley-Brewer in a separate interview. ‘I talk to the industry because it is about raising those local concerns that people have got, with the industry, and making sure industry respond to those. So I have to talk to them.’
Many in the Lancashire and Yorkshire fracking regions strongly refute her claims.
Perhaps Engel, whom one North Yorkshire resident last year dubbed ‘an evangelical shale gas enthusiast’ after hearing her talk in Malton, was referring to Lancashire for Shale (LFS), the astroturf local business group part-funded by Cuadrilla.
They too hit the airwaves this week, describing their former cheerleader’s ‘hugely disappointing’ resignation as ‘an absolutely damning indictment of government dithering’ and of ‘listening far too much to campaign groups and activists’ – meanwhile ignoring the ‘silent majority who support shale gas or at least have no strong opinion either way’. In the Daily Mail, the group called for ministers to re-examine ‘overly cautious rules on mini earth tremors’ and on social media hashtagged their posts #ReviewThe0point5.
Quite what data Engel or Lancashire for Shale are basing these assertions on is unclear. A survey published by the Campaign to Protect Rural England also in February found that only 24% of people polled support earth tremor rules being relaxed while 54% of people supported them staying at 0.5.
One Lancashire resident’s Change.org petition to overturn the TLS and ‘Give shale gas a chance to boost Lancashire’s economy’ has gained just 755 signatories in three months.
The government’s latest Public Attitudes Tracker poll published by BEIS (Engel’s employer) in February 2019 reveals just 13% of the British public support fracking versus 35% who are against.
Engel claimed quitting her ‘dream job’ as commissioner was the only option remaining to jolt ministers into reviewing the rules. It’s worth noting that her disclosed diaries show she’d nearly worked first year’s quota of 96 days -around 86 days by end of February according to Drill or Drop – reaping her a tidy £43-50k from the public purse at her £500-a-day fee.
As an exercise in overturning or swaying government policy it seems though – for the moment at least – Natascha Engel’s media grandstanding has failed. Last Thursday, junior energy minister Kelly Tolhurst in response to backbencher questions reiterated to Parliament the earthquake monitoring rules ‘set in consultation with industry as an appropriate precautionary measure’ ‘were working as intended’ and ‘there are no plans to review’ them.
Melissa Jones is the managing editor of Spinwatch and Public Interest Investigation’s Powerbase research wiki project.