Guest post by Tom Hooper, Head of Marine Policy here at the RSPB.
Yesterday, 28 November, was a fairly typical day for our times. We continued to wrestle with issues of energy prices, house prices and immigration. Also published yesterday was the latest report on how climate change is impacting the seas around the UK. The slow, out-of-sight changes taking place in our seas somehow seem unimportant and insignificant in comparison; but I strongly believe that these impacts are going to have an increasingly significant bearing on our marine wildlife and wellbeing in the coming decades.
The report is produced by a partnership that brings together scientists, governments and conservation organisations like the RSPB. These organisations have looked at more than 30 different marine and coastal topics from the extent of sea ice to changes in sea level. As the timescale of this research extends, scientists are able to have greater confidence in picking out the difference between long-term trends and short-term variability. For example in the last decade, the average UK sea surface temperature was lower in 2008-2012 than it was in 2003-2007; but the projection remains that coastal waters will increase by 2.5°C by 2080.
Scientists are naturally cautious people – they are trained and expected to make conclusions based on what the data is telling them. Scientists routinely challenge each other, and this ‘peer review’ system is what makes the system more robust. This report explicitly builds in how confidence in the conclusions can both increase and decrease depending on the level of certainty and agreement.
Our oceans are a vast and complex system of physical, chemical and biological processes. I doubt if it will ever be possible to clearly identify the smoking gun from amidst these vast interactions, but what speaks loudest to me is the combination of so many different trends which are pointing to changes that are already having a significant impact on marine wildlife around the UK.
For the first time the report looks at the changes in Arctic sea-ice, and provides (with a medium level of confidence) that the average monthly extent has declined at a rate of 4% per decade since 1979 and that the last seven years have seen the lowest sea-ice extents recorded. Most models are now predicting the Arctic to be ice free in each late summer by the 2030s.
Climate change impacts can be seen in changes in the distribution and abundance of species, and the northwards progression of some species has been documented in the report. There is also increasing evidence that overwintering distributions of waders and waterfowl have shifted north and eastwards out of the UK.
Politically and individually we are notoriously bad at taking practical actions to prepare for the future. These predictions seem far away and unimportant, but the potential implications to our wildlife and wellbeing are enormous. Most of us are used to dealing with risk and uncertainty in our lives. We pay for insurance in the event that our house may burn down. We know it is unlikely, but on the basis that the impact will be catastrophic, we are content to make the sacrifice now. This latest report on marine climate change impacts is a reminder that we should take the same attitude when it comes to taking active steps to mitigate and prepare for the future.
What steps do you think we should be taking to mitigate against climate change? Is it solely something for Government or do we all have a part to play?
Today the fracking industry, represented by the UK Onshore Operators Group, and the water industry have announced that they will “work together to help minimise the impact of onshore oil and gas development in the UK on the country’s water resources”.
The deal is welcome recognition from both the shale gas industry and the water industry that the commercial exploitation of shale gas could threaten our water resources, both by placing a further demand on water on water scarce areas and by causing accidental pollution of aquifers and rivers.
It’s clear that many of these risks can be mitigated - but not eliminated – by ensuring the industry follows best practice, but this voluntary deal between the industries is a worrying sign that we will depending on good will rather than regulation to protect the natural environment.
Earlier this year, David Cameron promised that “ there is no reason why the process should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage, if properly regulated....and the regulatory system in this country is one of the most stringent in the world. “
In reality, already the holes in the regulatory system is emerging.
Just this week, for example, MPs debated the lack of clear liability rules and suggested that a requirement for a financial guarantee from operators should be introduced to ensure that the taxpayer does not end out picking up the costs of cleaning up a pollution incident. Whilst earlier his year it emerged that at the Preese Hall fracking site the Environment Agency did not issue environmental permits for the disposal and management of flowback wastewater and only discovered after the site had been fracked that the flowback fluid should be classified as radioactive waste.
If anything today’s deal reinforces the fact that the regulatory regime for shale gas exploitation in this country is not yet fit for purpose. Why else would water companies be seeking extra assurances from the fracking industry?
Yesterday evening, during the second reading of the Water Bill, MPs debated who should pay if fracking goes wrong and pollutes our water. A number of MPs backed the proposal to make sure that fracking companies are liable for the costs of any accident and have the clean-up funds available.
This was a welcome debate of critical issue. Our rivers and groundwater are one of our most precious natural resources, but in many parts of the UK they are under great pressure from over abstraction and pollution. The Water Bill is an opportunity to address this through reforming the abstraction regime amongst other things, but it is also an opportunity to ensure that fracking is properly regulated and does not add to existing problems.
This is important regardless of whether or not we think fracking is a good thing for the country. In fact, we have often been reassured by politicians that the UK’s regulatory regime is, as the Prime Minister put it, ‘one of the most stringent in the world’. Yet if this is to be the case, why do we not have clear rules to make sure fracking companies pay if anything goes wrong and a river of aquifer is left polluted?
Such rules are particularly important in the event of the operator going bankrupt, particularly given the long timeframes over which a site might be operational. The fiasco in Scotland where open coast coal mining companies have gone into administration and left the taxpayer with the clean-up bills is a good illustration of this.
Assurances that accidents won’t happen aren’t enough either. Even if the industry is well regulated accidents could still happen – as they have in the USA. What’s more, if there is no risk to the natural environment, as some have argued, then insurance to cover the costs of a pollution incident should be available at negligible cost.
That’s why the RSPB, the Salmon and Trout Association and other NGOs are calling on MPs to introduce an amendment to the Water Bill that would ensure the taxpayer is never left with the costs of cleaning up a fracking-related pollution incident.
The amendment is incredibly simple. All it would do is require the Environment Agency, who regulates the industry, to ensure anyone receiving a permit to frack would have to demonstrate that they have a secured a financial provision – like a guarantee – that would cover the costs of a pollution incident regardless of when it happens and the status of the original developer.
Who should pay if fracking goes wrong? Let me know what you think here or on Twitter (@harryhuyton).