UK: GMB union supports fracking while Labour leadership contender calls for a moratorium

Andy Burnham
Source: WikiCommons, author: Andy Miah

GMB – a UK trade union with more than 631,000 members in nearly all industrial sectors, including gas and utilities – broke rank with the rest of UK’s trade unions by signing an agreement with a pro-fracking body United Kingdom Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) to support the exploration and development of shale gas in the UK.

Other UK unions including Unite and PCS are opposed to fracking, and calling for a moratorium on all fracking activities. This view is supported by Andy Burnham (pictured), the frontrunner for the Labour Party leadership, who also called for a moratorium on shale gas exploration, saying that shale licences are being handed out “like confetti”.

National officer Gary Smith told the GMB’s annual conference in Dublin it would be wrong to oppose fracking, as other unions have done.

He said: “Jumping on bandwagons is easy, but doing the easy thing does not mean you are doing the right thing. It would be easy to come out against fracking, but it would be wrong for the union, and for the country.”

During its 98th Congress in Dublin, the GMB expressed readiness to support gas workers should the development of UK shale gas deposits take place. Mr Smith told the 500 delegates gathered in the Irish capital that gas will remain crucially important in meeting Britain’s future energy needs for many decades to come.

“The issue for Britain isn’t whether we will use gas or not. We will. The real issue is where we will get our gas from, and who should take the moral responsibility for extracting and supplying the gas we use.

“As both the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the independent UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have recognised, gas has an important part to play in Britain reducing our carbon emissions.

“The future role of gas could be even more crucial in lowering CO2 emissions in Britain, through the development of micro combined heat and power units to produce heat and electricity for homes. Fuel cells which have zero carbon emissions will have a huge role to play in the future, and these will need gas too.

“Our energy intensive industries need access to affordable, secure energy supplies. They need the certainty that Britain’s energy mix will meet their needs. They, like Britain’s households, need gas to be part of that energy mix.

“The debate about fracking must be based upon complete honesty about the economic realities of gas,” he concluded.

The union announced it will commission a special report to analyse the role of shale gas in meeting the country’s future requirements. The GMB and UKOOG have also agreed a joint charter on shale gas, which focuses on safety, skills and supply chain development. As part of the agreement, the two organisations will work to ensure that the industry works transparently and in an environmentally responsible way.

The charter underlines a joint commitment to ensure:

  • That gas is recognized as essential to British industry and households.
  • Gas has a key role in both the UK’s future energy supply and the move to a low carbon energy future.
  • An increased understanding about the importance of gas and the long history of E&P onshore in Britain.
  • The establishment of an Industry Safety Forum to build on the already strong regulatory and safety foundations in the sector.
  • Skilled jobs are created and local communities benefit through the employment and training opportunities this brings.
  • British manufacturing and other supply chains have the opportunity to benefit from the development of the shale gas industry.

UKOOG Chief Executive Ken Cronin commented in an organization release:

“I am delighted to be working with the GMB, their history is immersed in the gas industry and we have a lot of common interest. Natural gas from shale has the potential to generate many thousands of highly skilled well paid jobs. Gas is used for heating and cooking in over 80 percent of the homes and workplaces in the country. Gas is also an important feedstock for the chemical industry, which employs tens of thousands of people in the North of England. It is essential for the economic well-being and the energy security of the UK that we get on with exploration to determine the extent of the gas resources we have in this country.”

The GMB’s decision to support shale exploration in the UK is at odds with the stance taken by the rest of the country’s trade unions, as well as – as it seems – with the stance taken by Andy Burnham; the contender for the leadership position in the Labour Party, vacated by Ed Milliband.

This may mark a shift in the party’s attitude towards fracking. Under Mr Milliband, Labour supported shale development in the UK, even if they insisted on more stringent rules governing the exploration than the ruling Conservative Party deems necessary.

However, in an interview given to a national newspaper, Mr Burnham said he was shocked by the number of fracking licences handed out in his constituency of Leigh, in the borough of Wigan, Greater Manchester.

“I was literally left open-mouthed two years ago when I realised there were about nine licences all over my constituency,” he said.

“Some of them are moving forward. These things just seem to be handed out like confetti. That made me really focus on the issue. In my area, we are riddled with mine shafts as a former mining area. Where is the evidence that it is safe to come and frack a place like this?”

“No fracking should go ahead until we have much clearer evidence on the environmental impact,” he said.

Several fracking licenses have indeed been handed out across areas of Wigan borough, but a permission from a local authority needs to be obtained before any work can start. The problems Cuadrilla has had in obtaining a permission to drill from the Lancashire council on their two sites in Preston and Roseacre Wood, shows that the the road to shale exploration in the UK – contrary to what Mr Burnham seems to believe – is far from smooth.

Meanwhile, the UK Environmental Agency revealed on Monday that Third Energy UK Gas Ltd has applied for the relevant permits to carry out fracking at a site in North Yorkshire. The company plans to carry out hydraulic fracturing, known as ‘fracking’, for shale gas in an existing borehole at Kirby Misperton, near Pickering.

The Environment Agency is seeking views from the local community and interested groups on the applications. The public consultation runs from Wednesday 10 June until Friday 10 July.

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