New commissioner calls for ‘rational debate’ on fracking

Natascha Engel is the new commissioner for shale gas.
Natascha Engel is the new commissioner for shale gas.

Fracking could create hundreds of jobs and boost Sheffield’s engineering sector, the new Shale Gas Commissioner has said.  

It could give the nation energy security and ease the transition to a low carbon economy.

Fracking is a "lighting rod" issue that evokes a "different level of fear" in residents, Ms Engel says.

Fracking is a "lighting rod" issue that evokes a "different level of fear" in residents, Ms Engel says.

And it could raise so much money in taxes it could “pay for the social care crisis”, according to Natascha Engel.

The former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire is the government’s new commissioner for fracking, a supposedly independent voice providing ‘impartial, fact-based advice’ and a link between communities, industry and regulators. It is not a regulatory role and has no powers of enforcement or investigation.

She said: “I wouldn’t be doing this job if I didn’t support the safe development of shale gas exploration.”

For too long, she says, professional protesters such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have dominated the argument, drowning out local residents who have legitimate questions about issues that affect them - such as potential pollution and lorry movements - but who still have an open mind.

Just last week, three protesters, including one from Sheffield, were freed after six weeks in prison for causing public nuisance at Cuadrilla’s fracking site in Lancashire.

One said: “The fracking industry threatens to industrialise our beautiful countryside. It will force famine, flooding and many other disasters on the world’s most vulnerable communities by exacerbating climate change.”

Ms Engel recently spoke to 200 people at a public meeting in Malton, North Yorkshire, at which only “two or three people” supported her views and there was “lots of shouting emotion and anger.”

“People feel very emotional about it, some are scared and fear it will kill children. That has no place in this debate at all. That’s like saying quarrying will kill children.

“It’s a development, you many not want it at the bottom of your garden but we need to have a rational debate about it.

“I’m not going to change minds at a public meeting where people are shouting. Most people just want to know a bit more. There is a highly political, organised campaign against fossil fuels at any price, without saying how we’ll get to a low carbon future - and residents are left out of the conversation.”

Ms Engel was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire for 12 years from 2005 to 2017 when she lost her seat to a Tory. Still a party member, she is no longer politically active, she says.

In that time, fracking arrived in the form of an Ineos application for exploratory drilling at Marsh Lane Eckington, near Dronfield. Locally there are two more applications in, at Woodsetts and Harthill in the Rother Valley, Rotherham.

Constituents would come, she says, with a “different level of fear” compared to, say, an application for quarrying.

She embarked on a fact finding mission which took her to Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire - where Third Energy has permission to frack - and New Road, Preston, where Cuadrilla this week started drilling after a seven-year delay over earthquake fears.

She also spoke to the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and the Oil and Gas Authority and returned to Derbyshire “thoroughly convinced” fracking “wasn’t materially different to other forms of oil and gas exploration.”

It put her at odds with her party, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who opposes it and said he was “very disappointed” at her new job. 

She said: ““The issue for me was that for the last 12 years I had been campaigning for jobs in North East Derbyshire.”

The benefits could include hundreds of direct and indirect jobs, perhaps see operators teaming up with Eckington secondary school - which specialises in engineering - and research centres and hi-tech firms on the Advanced Manufacturing Park.

Some wells require more than a mile of underground steel pipes, presenting a huge, local manufacturing opportunity, she says.

Some firms pay £100,000 compensation to local communities per site and pay out up to six per cent of gas revenues during production, although she admits that’s years away.

Methods used in England would benefit from 20 years of fracking developments in the US, a country which is self sufficient in oil and gas and no longer dependent on the Saudis.

The UK is dependent on Qatari gas, she says, and when a cold snap hits, like this year’s Beast from the East, fears of supply shortages are raised.

“This is a lightning rod issue. Strip away the politics and consider matters such as energy security and jobs and I can’t see any political party not supporting that, especially when the cost and consequences of importing it and the carbon footprint are included.

“There’s a strong case for taking it out of the ground here while investing heavily in renewables as a way to reduce emissions, as long as it displaced and didn’t add to existing use.

“Then I think it could have a huge impact on climate change targets. I can’t see how you would reach them otherwise.”