Meet the key fracking players to understand why central government ignores the wishes of local communities and drives through corporate interests
When Theresa May took over as prime minister in July 2016 she vowed her government would represent the concerns of ordinary people over big vested interests. Yet, within three months, her communities secretary, Sajid Javid, used powers created under David Cameron’s administration to override Lancashire county council’s refusal of plans for fracking test wells in the Fylde near Blackpool.
Following this, shale gas explorers Cuadrilla began work at one of those sites, Preston New Road, paving the way for the UK’s first fracking operations since earth tremors put a stop to test drilling over five years ago.
Spinwatch’s Meet the Frackers film visits some of the players involved in the deeply divisive fracking debate to help explain why central government is ignoring the voices of local communities – including the 186,000+ people who signed a petition urging it to respect Lancashire’s decision against Cuadrilla’s plans.
The Westminster and Whitehall merry-go-round
Theresa May is backing fracking, and the well-oiled revolving door between her government and the energy and lobbying industry is in free flow.
One stark example of the fracking industry and government interests aligning is the case of Patrick Erwin, a former top civil servant in the department of energy and climate change (DECC) and the department for communities and local government (DCLG).
Three years ago, Erwin was seconded to work at Ineos, the petrochemical giant. His move coincided with the firm’s foray into fracking. As Ineos Upstream’s new commercial director, he was central to the development of its shale gas plans, helping it secure over one million acres in government licences to become Britain’s biggest onshore oil and gas operator.
Erwin was Ineos’ point-man for its ‘relationship with government and industry’. Documents released to Spinwatch under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal how in 2014 he organised meetings for Ineos’ billionaire owner, Jim Ratcliffe, with permanent secretary Stephen Lovegrove and other DECC top brass, ahead of the company’s final decision to enter the shale gas market.
A regular on the shale gas conference circuit, Erwin has argued that fracking is vital for the country’s future. In a speech in summer 2015 he warned that without shale gas the UK risked becoming an environmental ‘theme park’; a strategy he called ‘massively irresponsible’.
At the same event Erwin acknowledged the importance of talking to and ‘standing up in front of communities’ in potential shale gas areas. Yet less than a year later he and two other senior Ineos directors held a series of closed private meetings with parish councillors to discuss plans for Ineos license blocks in Cheshire, Derbyshire and North Yorkshire.
Despite FOIA requests, DECC refused to publicly name Erwin as the government’s man seconded to Ineos. Erwin only declared the secondment on his LinkedIn profile after it had ended in 2016. Last month he joined Northern Powergrid as its policy and markets director.
DECC’s door has regularly revolved the other way, for example when Maria Allen, an ex-head of energy for Burson-Marsteller (B-M), was appointed special adviser to several Conservative energy and climate ministers between 2013-15, including Amber Rudd.
B-M, which has a long history of working for tobacco firms, repressive regimes and major polluters, is Ineos’ chosen lobbyist. And top B-M UK boss Stephen Day, was once a Tory special adviser to ex-shadow trade and industry ministers, John Redwood and David Heathcoat-Amory.
Before joining B-M in 2014, Day handled the Ineos account at another lobbying firm, where he had provided senior counsel during the highly-charged Grangemouth industrial dispute.
Ineos followed Day to B-M, where he clearly relishes a challenge: ‘Ineos are leading the way on fracking, we’re leading their work on fracking,’ he told PRWeek in an interview in 2015. ‘We’re not afraid of controversy.’
Several months ago, Ineos itself hired another type of insider – former Greenpeace director Stephen Tindale, known for his support of GM crops, nuclear energy and fracking, ostensibly to aid their PR pushback against mounting public opposition.
It’s a tactic well-tested by B-M, which has long employed leading environmentalists from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association to ‘engage’ with campaigner critics.
And yet, Ineos and B-M’s lobbying firepower seems almost modest when compared to rival frackers Cuadrilla, who have at least six lobbying and PR agencies at their paid disposal.
One of these, Lexington Communications, has the ear of Theresa May’s closest adviser, Fiona Hill, her joint chief of staff. Hill returned to Whitehall last July after a one-year stint working for Lexington, which also counts another frack firm, IGas, as a client.
Shortly after, May intervened in the fracking debate, unveiling plans to allow direct cash handouts for households located near shale drilling sites – although campaigners quickly denounced these as ‘bribes’.
Lexington’s remit includes running the admin and communications of Cuadrilla’s new ‘Community Liaison Group for the Preston Road site, where work started last week, flanked by protests.
Another lobbying tactic discussed in Meet the Frackers is ‘astroturfing’. Pro-shale groups like the business-focused North West Energy Taskforce (NWETF) and the self-described Backing Fracking ‘residents’ group have been repeatedly criticised by community groups and campaigners for presenting themselves as locally based and attempting to separate their message from the corporate interests behind them.
Originally set up and run by Westbourne Communications, another well-connected lobbying agency working for Cuadrilla, NWETF appears to have been superseded by a new pro-shale group called ‘Lancashire for Shale’ (LCS).
Albeit now more locally focused, this new group still includes many former NWETF people on its volunteer steering group and, like NWETF, names Cuadrilla and Centrica as among its supporters. And while it lists no staff (or PR admin) on its slick website, it posts regular blogs, press releases and tweets, including strong criticism of anti-fracking campaigners.
NWETF meanwhile has all but wound down, last tweeting last July to promote Lancashire for Shale’s launch. Although it is unclear whether Westbourne still have a role, campaigners remain unconvinced that LCS is anything but another ‘front group’.
Other stops on our fracking tour include:
- PPS, another Cuadrilla-hired lobbying ‘working in the tougher areas of communication’
- The Institute of Directors, which has published research reports sponsored by Cuadrilla
- UKOOG, the industry’s own lobby group, working hand-in-glove with government
- Newgate, working for the Barclays-backed Third Energy which last month won a High Court challenge to its plans to drill test wells at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire.
- And finally, Hill & Knowlton Strategies, lobbyists behind the all-party parliamentary group sponsored by the fracking industry.
We hope you enjoy the film.