Environment Opinion

Are astroturf groups behind Lancashire fracking?

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Fracking is still very much on the agenda within the UK government’s ideology of future energy production. The recent go-ahead in Ryedale for exploratory drilling in some of Yorkshire’s finest beauty spots has indicated the utter disregard for the imminent concern of the climate and environment.

Here in Lancashire, residents and community groups await the called-in decision from the secretary of state for local government and communities – formerly Greg Clark and now Sajid Javid. The secretary of state will now determine whether or not to grant Cuadrilla, the shale exploration and production company, their appeals at two rural agricultural sites on the picturesque Fylde Coast, or to retain the democratic decision made by parish, borough and county councillors, who all rejected Cuadrilla’s sketchy plans to frack the Fylde and beyond.

Over the last few years, Lancashire has experienced the materialisation of what is known as ‘astroturf groups’: a term for outwardly grassroots support for an industry or brand, but with an underlying corporate agenda.

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In Lancashire, we’ve already had a tawdry little outfit, consisting of mainly security guards from the Preston New Road earmarked exploratory fracking site, handing out propaganda-style pro-shale leaflets and attempting to gain signatures in Blackpool to back fracking under the banner of Blackpool Fracking for a Better Future. The North West Energy Task Force then became the ‘voice of business’ to rally for fracking in Lancashire, followed by ‘Backing Fracking’ –  allegedly a ‘residents for shale’ group appearing out of nowhere. Due to it being a bland and anonymously-led social media campaign, it never quite ignited the response it had clearly hoped for.

The North West Energy Task Force (NWETF) is a somewhat more respectable set-up of local-ish business folk who are:

charged with understanding how the responsible extraction of natural gas from Lancashire’s shale can be used to create jobs, generate economic growth and boost local revenues.”

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Then if you read on, you discover that:

“We are supported by Centrica Energy and Cuadrilla Resources, however our activities and views are independent of our financial supporters.”

Ah, yes. Of course. Undoubtedly independent.

Also included in the NWETF membership is the chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce, Babs Murphy. She very publicly displayed a scant knowledge of fracking and its impacts on local economy during the Lancashire appeal hearings in Blackpool in early 2016 when she took the stand as a Rule 6 Party to champion Cuadrilla. She had clearly not been able to delve deeply into the intricacies of shale, outrageously stating that:

“There is no evidence to suggest that the shale gas industry affects health.”

A report by the government’s own Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – Draft Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts paper was spectacularly redacted 63 times, blocking out the impacts fracking could have on a rural economy – including losses in tourism, agriculture and environmental effects. Murphy admitted to not actually reading the unredacted version of this report, only managing to absorb the redacted version, whose author was even called redacted. Staggeringly, she still manages to lead a vocal minority in the offensive for the free-gifting of our land and air to the frackers in Lancashire.

Another member of the ‘Task Force’ is Rob Green. Green, a qualified surveyor, is also part of Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Economic Development Company (BFWEDC) (previously named Blackpool Bay Area Company).

Martin Long is also a director of the BFWEDC, as well as being another panelist on the North West Energy Task and a vocal shale supporter.

BFWEDC is backed by three councils: Fylde, Wyre and Blackpool. Lancashire was also named as a supporter, but has since resigned. The BFWEDC Board of Directors includes the Chief Executive of Fylde Borough Council, Allan Oldfield. In March 2014, Oldfield participated in the Shale World UK event and gave an interview expecting the exploration of shale to be carried out within the Fylde. Fylde Borough Council went on to refuse both of Cuadrilla’s applications to frack on the Fylde in September 2014.

The BFWEDC is driven to promote industry and business in the Fylde area. It produced an energy leaflet late 2015, naming one of the two Fylde sites – Preston New Road – as a shale exploratory site, despite planning permission being refused. This leaflet was never printed, although the BFWEDC was listed as participants in Shale World UK – a not-too-cheap event to exhibit at. But what would they be exhibiting? Planning permission was clearly refused and an appeal lodged, but still no permission exists currently. As it happened, the BFWEDC section at the Shale World event lay empty, with their space cancelled at short notice.

It’s worth noting that in February 2015, Fylde Borough Council’s Economic Development Strategy – Review of Action Plan, under 11.1 Strategic Theme 11: Energy and Climate Change, the ‘actions to take place’ were to:

“Maximise the potential economic benefits to the local communities of sites for exploration and development from the energy and renewable sectors.

By whom? BFWEDC, Westinghouse/Springfields, Cuadrilla Resources and Blackpool and The Fylde College.”

The Chair of BFWEDC is, Bev Robinson, who is also Chief Executive and Principal of Blackpool and The Fylde College: another vocal supporter of fracking.

“Delivery: BFWEDC to understand the potential and subsequently harness the potential economic benefit by working across the Fylde Coast and building relationships with key firms.

Action examples: BFWEDC leading on liaison with Shale Gas industry including regulators. BFWEDC also represent the area on the BIS Unconventional Oil and Gas working group and the North West Energy Task Force. Full response provided to LCC to assist in the determination of their planning applications relating to Shale Gas.”

Fylde Borough Council therefore, had effectively given control over their policy planning on energy, or at least shale gas, to BFWEDC: an organisation which houses members with a conflict of interests. The industry crossovers with the North West Energy Task Force, sponsored by Cuadrilla renders them less than impartial.

The latest in the minority of pro-shale support is the emergence of a ‘new’ contingent this week: ‘Lancashire for Shale’. I use the word new rather loosely, as upon a closer inspection, it is transparent that it is another initiative from the North and West Lancashire Chamber of Commerce to masquerade as an authentic representation of the community. Again, Green and Long appear as members, along with a large majority of the members of the North West Energy Task Force.

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There is much duplication the text in places, with the main task of Lancashire for Shale being “charged with understanding how the responsible extraction of natural gas from Lancashire’s shale can be used to create jobs, generate economic growth and boost local revenues.” A word-for-word copy from the website of the North West Energy Task Force.

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Once you start unpeeling the corporate layers of this fracking façade, it is becomes clear that it is nothing more than another back door entry for an unwanted industry trying to gain social license via the business community, with a blatant attempt to undermine local residents.

Curiously, right at the bottom of Lancashire for Shale’s latest press release, direct confirmation appears (whose silly mistake was that?) yet again, that another PR company is responsible for spinning the latest sale of shale to the hoi polloi. Westbourne Communications: the brainchild of Conservative and former parliamentary candidate for Tooting in 2005, James Bethell. Westbourne is the same company that administrates for the North West Energy Task Force and is one of Cuadrilla’s many PR firms.

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In 2013, Westbourne Communications were revealed over their distasteful methods of PR. Spinwatch outlined “allegations of dirty tricks, sham local consultations and a well-oiled revolving door between developers and councils.”

The intimidation aspect of Westbourne’s strategies are comprehensively laid out in the report Scaring the Living Daylights Out of People: the local lobby and the failure of democracy, with the HS2 project highlighted, where Westbourne was the lobbying firm involved. They “focused on a two-pronged strategy of galvanising support from the business community while starting campaigns at a local level.” Westbourne’s tactics for intimidating local residents was intended to “shit them up”.

The transparent methods of the Lancashire business support for shale is a half-baked attempt at a local grassroots campaign, because realistically, the genuine support levels for fracking is remarkably invisible on both a local and national level, no matter how the oil and gas industry tries to dress it up.

The Chamber of Commerce, although the fracking cheerleaders and Rule 6 Party in support of Cuadrilla in Lancashire, does not speak for all of its members and further risks alienating them by the Chamber’s blatant favouring of the oil and gas industry.

Maureen Mills, a councilor for Halsall, is also a member of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce. She said:

“Clearly the now defunct North West Energy Task Force, having discredited themselves with their list of so-called “supporters” of their letter to the press of 8th January 2015, have suddenly re-branded themselves and are trying their “letter to the press” tactic again. Notably, five of the Lancashire for Shale supporters are on the council of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce (NWLC) that decides “policy“.  Add to that Dawn Cheetham; Director of NWLCC and Babs Murphy; Chief Executive NWLCC and it is now transparent how and by whom the Chamber’s policies are decided.

I asked Babs Murphy a direct question during the Cuadrilla appeals Inquiry, that was whether they had canvassed opinion of the membership as to their stance as a Rule 6 party supporting Cuadrilla’s appeals.  She answered that the Chamber does not canvass opinion of members, the Council makes policy decisions.  I found that unbelievable as they had carried out a survey for the “supply chain” for the shale gas industry.  As a member of the Chamber I objected to their Rule 6 stance.

Recently we were contacted by a local company that had received an unsolicited and speculative email completely out of the blue from Claire Smith – a panelist on North West Energy Task for and Lancashire for Shale:

 

“FINAL REMINDER – PLEASE SIGN OUR LETTER TO A NEWSPAPER BY CLICKING HERE

I wrote to you last week about Lancashire for Shale.

This is a final reminder to say if you support the development of shale gas in Lancashire then please sign our letter to a newspaper (see below) by clicking here.

With the positive news that shale gas operations have been given the green light in Ryedale it is only a matter of time before the economic benefits start to trickle down to local communities and businesses in Yorkshire.

As Lancashire-based businesses and local residents, we also believe shale gas will create opportunities for our businesses, new jobs, and much-needed investment for our County. But we are concerned that all these benefits to Lancashire risk being left behind.

It’s high-time for all decision-makers, both national and local, to work together to ensure that Lancashire does not miss out on the jobs and investment offered by our County’s shale gas resources.

For further information about Lancashire for Shale, please visit our website here.”

If it was needed, this just reinforces the complete lack of credibility of this new ‘Lancashire for Shale’ entity and the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce as a Rule 6 party to the Cuadrilla appeals.”

The Chamber of Commerce needs to recognise it has inappropriately over-stepped the mark in supporting the oil and gas industry in its many guises. The integrity of such an organisation that sells-out Lancashire residents, especially those situated within a few hundred metres of the proposed fracking sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre, in favour of industry friends, is sure to be questioned and disparaged as an ethical let-down.

If  genuine support for fracking was so prevalent, other than vested-interests people and companies, it would not require national PR companies to sell shale.

Until then, the oil and gas industry and lobby should understand that their deceptive and see-through methods render the frackers impotent in their attempts to secure any social license to destroy our communities.

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