Unconventional fossil fuels – such as oil from tar sands, or shale gas via fracking – would seem to require, by definition, unconventional regulations to ensure public health and environmental safety. As dozens of academic studies note , these fuels are riskier to extract and have little-understood long-term consequences for people and the environment, writes Antoine Simon.
Yet weak, voluntary environmental regulation prevails for unconventional fossil fuels in Europe . Meaningful regulation has been systematically undermined in Brussels by an underground offensive of powerful energy companies and their proponents. Their goal is to maximise profits for companies, while ensuring minimum safeguards for people and the environment. In our new research Friends of the Earth Europe has revealed a clear picture of the collusion between these actors , but the true extent of the web of power remains unknown, thanks to a fundamental lack of transparency in Brussels.
This backroom offensive is being waged on behalf of companies by a number of powerful lobby groups. They use paid-for biased scientific reports that downplay the tremendous risks associated with shale gas extraction, and have allies from national governments up to the highest officials of European institutions.
Total and Shell, for instance, are each affiliated with nine different major shale gas-related lobby groups in Brussels. The largest of these groups bring together the biggest and most powerful energy companies involved in shale gas: both the European Energy Forum and Shale Gas Europe are linked to Shell, BP, Total, Statoil and Chevron, among others, while BusinessEurope and the International Oil and Gas Producers’ Association (OGP) are both linked notably to ExxonMobil, BP, Chevron, Total and GDF Suez.
Common to this web of industry actors is a discord between their public pronouncements on environmental responsibility and the language and targets of their private lobbying. BusinessEurope publicly advocates the expoitation of shale gas “in a sustainable way”, but lobbied against the “unnecessary administrative burden” of requiring independent environmental reporting for shale gas projects. Meanwhile Chevron makes the remarkable claim that “protecting land, water and communities is our highest priority” – at the same time it is a member of OGP which repeatedly pushes reports that deny the risk of groundwater contamination via fracking, and overplays the highly uncertain economic benefits of shale gas expansion.
These industry groups also enjoy vastly privileged access to key decision-makers in shale gas regulation. In 2013, while shale gas regulation was under consideration, the European Commission’s DG Environment recorded 23 meetings with proponents of the shale gas industry, and just five with non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile at DG Energy, the then-Director General Philip Lowe reported having attended “30 or more” shale gas industry-led meetings in 2013, and none with NGOs or representatives of the European anti-fracking movement.
Yet this strong network of lobbying interests is only the tip of the iceberg: what we know about these associations and patterns of representation comes from the voluntary transparency register. Over half of the 23 industry groups that DG Environment corresponded with in 2013 have not signed up to it. This means that even the extensive web of linkages between lobbying groups we identified  is a smaller subsection of an even larger network of vested interests and lobbying power .
The same picture emerges at DG Energy. Of the 24 shale gas industry actors who engaged in correspondence in 2013, just ten were signed up to the transparency register, and of more than half of the 17 industry requests for meetings or invitations to conferences, seminars, dinner debates or forums came from non-signatories. Those groups that have not signed up to the register are by no means minor players, including among them the CWC Group who co-invited Energy Commissioner Oettinger to the unsurprisingly partisan World Shale Oil and Gas Summit.
It is no wonder that the public debate has become skewed. The discussion has become the victim of corporate capture, and been biased by an overwhelming range of distorted evidence and false ‘scientific’ claims made by the industry and its proponents. Alongside their privileged access to EU decision-makers, these powerful industry lobbies have manufactured doubt about the risks of fracking, and promised economic growth and job creation – a politically tempting pill to swallow in a period of economic and energy crisis.
Europe must resist this temptation. Industry cannot be allowed to set the agenda unanimously and behave as if it was both defendant and judge.
Instead, we must see these challenges as opportunities to start building what should be our sustainable future.
In light of the currently available science, which consistently agrees on the inherent dangers of shale gas extraction, the precautionary principle should apply – not irresponsible quick fixes with scant consideration for long-term environmental costs. Meanwhile, more viable, safe, and sustainable energy options should be explored, such as boosting investment for community renewables and setting ambitious energy efficiency policies.
Antoine Simon is a shale gas campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe