In New Zealand the new Labour Prime Minister turns up to a Greenpeace rally to accept a petition to end oil and gas exploitation. In France the new President makes a €700 million pledge to finance a new global initiative on solar energy. In Britain we decide to pump hydrochloric acid solution into the ground to dissolve the rock in our National Parks.
Technically this is not fracking so the government thinks it’s OK. Instead of cracking the rock surrounding an oil well you use acid to dissolve the rock and expand existing fractures so that more oil can be extracted. But if we’re to limit average global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius this century, we must leave, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves in the ground. The Tories might like to turn a blind eye. But their plans to deal with climate change are quite simply inadequate.
Not that you would know this by listening to the government’s climate change minister. Claire Perry’s recent remarks smack of complacency, claiming to a committee of MPs last year that we have a “100% chance of meeting our targets” compounded by her current favourite statistic that we are 97% of the way to achieving our targets. This is of course based on how far we have come since 1990 and fails to take account of the government’s own forecasts that show scant evidence to suggest we’re on the path to success.
We have to dramatically cut CO2 emissions by 225 million tonnes in the period from 2027 to 2032 to meet the fifth carbon budget, a target enshrined in law. But as my colleague, the shadow energy and climate change minister, Alan Whitehead, pointed out this month in the House of Commons with his usual steel, the government’s proposals as set out in their Clean Growth Strategy are projected to only reduce that amount by 116 million tonnes – barely halfway.
The truth is the Paris Agreement has committed us to achieving no net emissions of greenhouse gas by the second half of this century. That’s why back in 2016 I stood up in front of party conference and announced that a Labour government would ban fracking. Not only does it pose environmental dangers, but more importantly, it locks us into an energy infrastructure that is based on fossil fuels long after our country needs to have moved to clean energy.
So it’s alarming, then, to see reports that protected areas – including National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest – across the South East could be at risk from oil drilling through acidisation. Investigations by Greenpeace have revealed that nearly 177,000 acres of protected landscapes and habitats in Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight are in sites with licenses to exploit fossil fuels from companies including Cuadrilla, Angus Energy and UKOG. This includes up to 77,710 acres of South Downs National Park that could be threatened by drilling, along with 66 sites of special scientific interest.
The government originally said they would restrict fracking in protected areas to safeguard the UK’s most exceptional nature sites. They then allowed fracking to occur under National Parks as long as it happened more than 1200 metres below ground and the drill platform was outside the park! But the government now says such restrictions do not apply to the process of ‘matrix acidisation’ that the companies will be using to extract this oil. It can’t be right that these plans can proceed on a mere technicality. Acidisation isn’t benign – like fracking, it can pose risks to groundwater sources, and runs counter to the urgency with which we must shift away from fossil fuels. The government needs to acknowledge the hypocrisy of this position and halt these companies in their tracks.
People must question why the public is funding what George Osborne described as “the most generous tax regime for shale gas anywhere in the world”. It’s not hard to see how this money could be better spent getting on with work that would make up the shortfall in their Clean Growth Strategy. For example, an ambitiously funded action plan to deliver the widespread roll-out of energy efficiency measures in existing buildings across the country, making our homes and offices warmer whilst also making them greener – an area identified by the Committee on Climate Change as a priority.
It’s time for the government to stop acting as the handmaid to the fracking lobby and the oil and gas sector as they push ahead with plans to ransack some of the most precious parts of our countryside. Doing nothing to stop national parks being drilled for oil isn’t what climate leadership looks like.