As Britons head to the voting booth Thursday to consider whether or not to stay in the European Union, some environmentalists are saying that a so-called Brexit vote could pave the way for more fracking in the United Kingdom.
The argument makes sense. If Britain leaves the E.U., it leaves the E.U.’s regulatory framework. There are at least 15 provisions in E.U. law that apply to fracking’s environmental impact, including directives that allow for water protections, limit the chemicals in fracking, and guide wastewater disposal. The U.K. would no longer be beholden to these standards.
“Weak and patchy as they are, the U.K.’s fracking regulations could be even worse without the bedrock provided by over a dozen separate E.U. directives,” said Hannah Martin, energy campaigner at Greenpeace. “If Britain leaves the E.U., this last bulwark of environmental protection would be at the mercy of a government that has stopped at nothing to help the fracking industry.”
But at the same time, it might not matter whether the U.K. stays or goes, as far as fracking is concerned.
Weak and patchy as they are, the UK’s fracking regulations could be even worse without the bedrock provided by over a dozen separate EU directives
That’s because Martin is right: The conservative government at the helm of the United Kingdom wants fracking, and it wants it now. Government leaders have made no secret of this. Natural gas is at the heart of the country’s plan to transition away from coal-fired power plants, and there is a strong push for “energy independence” — which means no more natural gas imported from Qatar. Critics are skeptical that the country could ever frack its way to energy independence, but the government seems bent on trying.
Ironically, though, Brexit could reduce the potential for fracking in other places in the E.U. As the E.U. works towards additional standards on the practice, losing the U.K. voice could help smooth the way for stronger environmental regulation.
“In recent years, the U.K. Government has been a leader in lobbying against tougher E.U. fracking regulation, so Brexit could mean one fewer opponent for the regulation that is needed,” Tony Bosworth, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, told ThinkProgress via email.
Fracking’s Total Environmental Impact Is Staggering, Report FindsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File The body of evidence is growing that fracking is not only bad for the…thinkprogress.orgEurope has, so far, broadly rejected fracking. The continent is more densely packed than the United States, and, as Bloomberg points out, most oil and gas rights are owned by the state, not the landowner. But there isn’t exactly consensus on the issue.
Poland, for instance, has pushed for less regulation on fracking, while Germany on Wednesday banned fracking indefinitely. The E.U. itself can’t outright ban fracking for its members — energy policy is reserved for domestic law. But using environmental and climate restrictions, it could stifle the as-yet undeveloped industry. Critically, the E.U. could focus on methane emissions.
The E.U. announced this week that it has already achieved its emissions reductions goal of a 20 percent cut by 2020. Greenhouse gas emissions are already 24.4 percent below the 1990 baseline.
Britain, meanwhile, is opposing — along with the oil and gas industry — an E.U. proposal to monitor methane emissions from fracking. Government officials called it “unnecessary red tape,” according to the Guardian, but they are clearly either not interested in addressing climate change or they are completely ignoring the lessons of the United States. The United States has seen a 30 percent spike in methane emissions since 2002 — enough to nullify any climate benefit from the country’s switch from coal-fired power generation to natural gas.
But in the face of potential regulation that would curb the industry’s methane emissions, it’s telling that the oil and gas industry in Britain still appears to be opposing Brexit. Perhaps that’s because they know that small differences in regulation are less important than the overall health of Britain’s economy — and Brexit opens up a Pandora’s box of uncertainties for not only regulation, but also trade with the continent.
So it seems, in fact, that the only way Britain — particularly England — is going to stop fracking is to keep campaigning against it and ultimately unseat the government that is supporting the natural gas industry.
Tiny English Village Fights Fossil Fuel Industry To Avoid Becoming Ground Zero For British FrackingNORTH YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND – Through the decades, the English countryside has been known to American audiences as the…thinkprogress.org“The Scottish and Welsh governments have imposed moratoriums and fracking faces strong local opposition wherever it is proposed in England,” Bosworth said. “Indeed, support for fracking is at its lowest level and opposition at its highest level since the Prime Minster said he was ‘all out for fracking’ in January 2014.”
Last month, a proposal for test fracking — the first step towards high-volume injections — passed the local council in Yorkshire, England, despite massive opposition from the community and environmentalists. But even before the vote was held, it wasn’t certain the locals could do much to stop the fracking juggernaut. Last year, a local council rejected a fracking permit application, but the government is considering overthrowing that decision.
“The referendum vote is unlikely to have any impact on the UK Government’s gung-ho support for the fracking industry,” Bosworth pointed out.