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For a Government which has been wracked by as many resignations as Theresa May’s, the departure of a mere ‘tsar’ may count as a little light relief.
Yet Natascha Engel’s decision to step down as Shale Gas Commissioner is just the latest evidence of the extent to which this administration’s domestic agenda is disintegrating as it focuses its dwindling reserves of energy on the Prime Minister’s ongoing efforts to pass her Withdrawal Agreement.
Engel, a former Labour MP and Deputy Speaker who represented North East Derbyshire before being unseated by Lee Rowley in 2017, was appointed by Claire Perry, the Energy Minister, only seven months ago. She was meant to serve as a “single point of contact” for residents and others on the subject of fracking.
Yet she claims that ministers are making shale gas extraction effectively impossible by imposing excessive restrictions, namely requiring an 18-hour pause in drilling every time a ‘micro-tremor’ of magnitude 0.5 or greater is detected. The industry claims that such tremors are almost entirely undetectable on the surface and that several more serious ones – unconnected to fracking – have occurred in the UK without any ill-effect.
In a parting shot in the Times, Engel herself argues that shale has an essential role to play in helping the UK transition from traditional oil and gas to renewable energy – which currently provides only a fraction of Britain’s energy needs on a reliable basis – whilst avoiding counter-productive alternatives such as wood pellets or bio-fuels. Labour and green activists want shale extraction banned altogether.
Setting aside the question of whether or not fracking is a good thing, the Government’s current position appears designed to irritate both sides to minimal benefit. Greta Thunberg’s acolytes won’t be won over by official statements saying that shale extraction “could have the potential to be a new domestic energy source and create thousands of well-paid, quality jobs”.
But if the shale companies can’t extract then neither those jobs nor that energy will materialise either – and this hasn’t gone unnoticed in usually-friendly newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Telegraph.
Engel’s version of events – that the Government has chickened out of reviewing the originally-temporary 0.5 limit because it lacks the fight to take on the green lobby – is entirely plausible, and illustrative of a Government which appears to be losing even the capacity for power. May is reportedly scrambling to find bills to justify forestalling a new Queen’s Speech – it’s too much to hope that action on this important front will be part of that exercise.