Guest Interview – Paul Mobbs of Mobb’s Environmental Investigations and Research

Paul-Mobbs-headshot

If the Shale gas industry continues to follow the path it is on, it could be a major industry providing thousands of jobs and growth for Britain. Industry as well as the government are keen for the shale gas industry to begin and oil and gas companies are already in the application process. There are however serious worries concerning the environmental impact this could have on both the UK and global issue of climate change and the British Environment.

In the run up to Shale Gas Conference, SMI asked one of their speakers Paul Mobs – Proprietor of Mobb’s Environmental Investigations and Research – a few questions about current debates, regulations, shale gas benefits and harms.

SMi: Which sessions are you most looking forward to hearing at the Shale Gas Environmental Summit?

P.M.: I like attending conferences such as this generally – listening to all the proceedings.

Many of those working on the ‘opposing’ case to shale gas development in Britain rarely attend conferences such as this. I think that’s a pity, as they might find the experience enlightening. If they were to attend they would probably develop a very different view of both of the delegates, and those representing the industry, local government and science agencies.

What I think they would find startling is that, even here, the case for shale gas is based upon a relatively small number of arguments. This is in part the result of shale gas development becoming a politicised issue. Open debate has been stifled as the parties involved increasing default to a narrow set of partisan arguments (for example, the Department of Energy’s pressure on The Telegraph in June 2015 to delete an article which questioned government policy).

As a result much of the recent research around this subject has yet to receive the public attention it deserves. Over the last three to four years, and certainly since I started research in this field in 2009, there is now far more evidence available on both the economic, geophysical and environmental characteristics of unconventional oil and gas extraction.

As time has gone by, this has rendered the ‘headline’ case for shale gas development in the UK far less certain. The Department of Energy’s grand unconventional energy project of 2008, conceived in the Thirteenth Landward Licensing Round, is now technically flawed, and failing as a result. That is the greater issue which I believe we should be investigating through forums such as this – setting the direction of future debate rather than repeating or reinforcing that which has gone before.

Unfortunately the political capital which the government has invested in their policy means that a truly objective debate is not taking place. That is bad not just for the public, but also for potential investors or participants in projects who need objective evidence to make decisions.

More problematically, it leaves regulators and local authorities sandwiched between public opinion, which is fuelled by the most recent research demonstrating problems with the process, and an inflexible government, which cannot accept any such criticisms of its flagship energy policy.

SMi: Over all, how much do you think a shale gas industry would benefit the UK?

P.M.: Very little. For example, OFGEM’s research indicates that unconventional gas will never plan more than an incidental part – perhaps only 5% to 15% – in the UK’s energy mix. Certainly Britain will be unable to avoid the large-scale importation of oil and gas even if the industry develops rapidly.

The studies carried out in support of the industry’s case do for shale gas development in the UK far less certain. The Department of Energy’s grand unconventional energy project of 2008, conceived in the Thirteenth Landward Licensing Round, is now technically flawed, and failing as a result. That is the greater issue which I believe we should be investigating through forums such as this – setting the direction of future debate rather than repeating or reinforcing that which has gone before.

Unfortunately the political capital which the government has invested in their policy means that a truly objective debate is not taking place. That is bad not just for the public, but also for potential investors or participants in projects who need objective evidence to make decisions.

More problematically, it leaves regulators and local authorities sandwiched between public opinion, which is fuelled by the most recent research demonstrating problems with the process, and an inflexible government, which cannot accept any such criticisms of its flagship energy policy.

SMi: Could the opportunity of shale gas give Britain true Energy security?

P.M.: ‘Energy security’ is a concept which is promoted by certain special interests who seek state subsidies or tax concessions to enable development.

Such concepts are part of a greater economic obstacle to change in the energy sector, identified recently as part of work by the IMF, which estimated global fossil fuels subsidies in 2015 at $5.3 trillion. Given the need to reduce global carbon emissions from fossil fuels, such strategies also carry a higher long-term regulatory risk.

If we look at national economies globally, there is no correlation between the proportion of indigenous energy production versus demand and the relative economic strength of an economy.

For example, Germany imports over 60% of its energy requirements, South Korea almost 90% and Japan more than 90% – yet they are acknowledged as being relatively strong economies. In contrast Nigeria, Venezuela and Iran are energy exporters, and yet they have relatively weak economies. The US and Russia have large indigenous energy industries, and yet they have their own unique macroeconomic problems.

If we look at what creates a strong economy it is a whole variety of factors, not simply the level of energy imports. While some of those factors do relate to energy, the more critical factors relate to how the national economy integrates into global trade flows – to create both a strong home and export markets, and allow participation in global trade without creating debilitating trade deficits and/or growing debt.

That is the greater economic issue here – the structure of the UK economy, and why our dependence on a few large industries has failed over recent years.

Britain has undergone a 40 year boom and bust cycle, forged by North Sea oil and gas and financial services. With both of those industries now in trouble, moving beyond that obstacle is about developing a diversified set of economic activities, based within long-term sustainable practices, which meet the strengths of the UK’s knowledge and industrial assets.

Simply replicating the boom-bust fossil fuel resource cycle of the last forty years – which, if enacted, is what the proposed ‘shale gas revolution’ would be – will not achieve a sustainable transition in the structure of the UK economy.