What the Elphicke are we supposed to believe?

Politicians eh?

Last night it seems that Charlie Elphicke, Conservative MP for Dover, underwent something of a Damascene conversion.

Mr Elphicke made a bit of a Charlie of himself last week, when he was caught out getting rather mixed up about the differences between coal bed methane and underground coal gasification (AKA Fracking’s ugly sisters) on the radio. This led to him receiving this letter from Julie Wassmer, Vice Chair, East Kent Against Fracking :

Dear Charlie Elphicke,


I write to you not as a constituent but in my role as Vice Chair of East Kent Against Fracking, following comments you made during an interview on BBC Radio Kent last Wednesday 18th September. I provide here an I-Player link to the programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01g15tp which can be accessed until midnight on Tuesday 24th September.

Your interview concerned recent planning applications submitted to Kent County Council by Coastal Oil & Gas Ltd. The company wishes to conduct exploratory drilling for coal bed methane gas at 3 sites on the former east Kent coalfields at Shepherdswell, Guston and Tilmanstone. I was interviewed on the same programme an hour before your own exchange with Richard Knox-Johnstone, Chair of CPRE – Protect Kent Environment.

During the interview, Mr Knox-Johnstone made reference to the high risk of contamination to the Chalk aquifer from exploratory drilling for coal bed methane gas at the 3 sites, such warning having been given by hydrogeologist Graham D.Warren. I also made reference to Mr Warren’s warning during my own interview.

Your reply to Mr Knox-Johnstone was as follows: ‘I think the CPRE have got muddled up between 2 processes because there’s fracking on the one hand and there’s underground coal gasification, which is effectively a form of modern mining on the other, which doesn’t involve high pressure and all this sort of water.’

Mr Elphicke, I feel compelled to point out that it is you who appears to have confused two processes during this discussion, since underground coal gasification (UCG) is entirely distinct from drilling for coal bed methane (CBM). The fact that you could possibly confuse these two processes while suggesting that the Chair of Kent’s CPRE was ‘muddled up’ would seem as ironic as it is unfortunate.

The Chalk aquifer, upon which the 3 sites are located, supplies no less than 70% of Kent’s domestic and commercial potable water requirements. These applications are therefore highly relevant to a great number of Kent residents and businesses beyond the immediate site areas. I would therefore suggest that during any media discussion, accuracy is essential to prevent any misrepresentation for the public.

You also stated the following: “the Government is keen to explore, there’s no doubt about that. My own view is let’s see if we’ve got stuff down there. If we’ve got stuff down there, let’s see if we can lift it up safely. Is there a potential for a future coal industry in these fields?’ Perhaps your government should first concern itself with providing proper regulation to ensure that the unconventional gas and oil industry is made safe before any exploratory drilling (in villages in east Kent or elsewhere) is allowed to go ahead. Your reference to a ‘potential for a future coal industry in these fields’ has surely given listeners the impression that test drilling for coal bed methane gas might somehow result in the resurrection of a coal industry in this area – something that would be highly misleading.

I am greatly disappointed by the inaccuracy of your comments but I am not wholly surprised by them since I am in receipt of copies of responses from my own MP, Julian Brazier to Canterbury constituents in which he quotes the Business Minister, Michael Fallon MP. I draw your attention to Mr Fallon’s statement in the enclosed letter of 10th April 2013, which was used by Mr Brazier as a response to Canterbury constituent, Jill Clarkson: “Exploration drilling for unconventional gas and oil uses the same techniques as conventional drilling. The oil and gas industry operating in the UK has a strong track record. So far from serious failures being common, around 2000 onshore wells have been drilled in the UK and there have been no incidents to date of a breach of well integrity or of pollution from such a breach.’

I would suggest that these statements are disingenuous and therefore misleading for constituents, since they conflate drilling for unconventional gas/oil with conventional gas/oil drilling, giving an overall impression that there is little difference between either form and that there may have been many unconventional gas/oil wells drilled quite safely. In fact, there certainly have not been 2,000 unconventional gas and oil wells drilled in the UK and the only instance of fracking by Cuadrilla in Lancashire in 2011, caused seismic events resulting in damage to 80 homes.

Cuadrilla was warned by Ministers that it had “failed to recognise the significance” of damage to that same fracking well in 2011, and did not report it to Government officials for six months, leading to a reprimand by the Energy Minister (as papers released under the Freedom of Information Act have shown.)

A year after the incident, the Energy Minister, Charles Hendry, expressed concern that it had not been reported to his officials at the time, saying the “failure” had exposed “weaknesses in Cuadrilla’s performance as a licensee”.

The casing of the well drilled at the Preese Hall-1 site was damaged by the earthquake caused by Cuadrilla’s own drilling, and a deformation in the well was discovered in routine investigations a few days later. I’m sure Michael Fallon knows that deformation of well casings can be serious, causing gas or fracking fluids – water and chemicals – to leak.

Mr Hendry wrote to Lord Browne on 11th May 2012: “My department is concerned Cuadrilla failed to recognise the significance of the casing deformation experienced in the earth tremor triggered by fracking operations on 1 April 2011…So much so, that the company did not report it to my officials … as to the possible cause of the tremor and the possibility it might be linked to fracking. In the light of Cuadrilla’s responses to the department’s subsequent inquiries, I have formed the view that this failure discloses weaknesses in Cuadrilla’s performance as a licensee, which need to be addressed.”

I would contend that following the Preese Hall-I incident, it would be highly appropriate for the public to be concerned about this industry, despite the reassuring statements made in Michael Fallon’s letter – which make no mention of this incident. Having committed itself to a policy of support for the unconventional gas and oil industry, the government appears to be intent on pursuing exploration in indecent haste without proper regulation being yet in place. I am reminded of the document in my possession entitled ‘Fracking – a Briefing for Members’ which states “the mistakes and environmental damage that has given it a bad name elsewhere (polluted drinking water and flame from the bathroom taps!) have resulted from bad practice in other countries and are unlikely to occur in the U.K.’ I would ask ‘how so?’ And why would Members possibly believe this statement, unsupported by the details of current regulation?

I would also ask why communities such as those in Tilmanstone, Guston and Shepherdswell are being asked to decide upon applications regarding an issue that is clearly so complex their own MP seems to be confused. Not only that, but residents and parish councils were being expected to decide and make their comments in just a few weeks (by 6th October) if East Kent Against Fracking had not taken the initiative to extract a later date of 15th November from KCC’s Principal Planning Officer Mike Clifton.

I must remind you that other potential hazards to be considered for your constituents are methane emissions and the potential for serious health problems ranging from asthma and constant debilitating headaches to cancer. Residents close to exploratory drilling operations (as I have experienced in Balcombe) suffer noise and light pollution caused by 24-hour drilling as well as frequent movements of heavy goods vehicle traffic. They can also find themselves trapped in a property they can no longer sell or even insure.

EKAF is a non political campaign group – indeed we have a Green Party councillor and a Conservative councillor on our committee. We also have technical advisors who can help to raise awareness of issues relating to the unconventional gas and oil industry which I’m sure many MPs find challenging to understand. I am therefore taking this opportunity to enclose information to help you distinguish, in future, the two processes of UCG and drilling for CBM (not least because if these applications were for underground coal gasification EKAF would be even more concerned.)

I hope you will accept this in the spirit in which it is intended: cooperation on an extremely important issue. I will end with the views of a Shepherdswell resident named only as Suzanne, who sent in a text to BBC Radio Kent which was read out on the Julia George Show that followed your interview: – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01g15ts

“I live in Shepherdswell and I listened on the Breakfast Programme to Charlie Elphicke being interviewed about this issue in hand. I, too, understand the need for the government to be responsible with regard to our energy problems, however, Mr Elphicke also has a responsibility to his constituents in the villages he is supposed to look out for. I’m very disappointed that in the interview he didn’t once mention us, the villagers, not only in Shepherdswell but the other villages too. It would have been reassuring to have heard him say that he would hold a public meeting in each village to give us, the people who gave him his seat, the chance to listen to what he has to say and also for him to hear what we, the villagers, have to say. All the villagers need to make an informed choice over this matter, We need to attend the meeting and Mr Elphicke needs to be there too. I feel let down by my MP at a time when my lovely village needs him most.”

I hope you can take that resident’s views on board, Mr Elphicke.

Yours sincerely,

Julie Wassmer
Vice Chair
East Kent Against Fracking

Well last night it seems that he attended a meeting chaired by the CPRE and we received this report of it

Remember Charlie Elphicke MP – the Conservative Deal and Dover MP who got things confused on BBC Radio Kent the other day? And then received a tough letter telling him so? He’s absolutely redeemed himself at a CPRE meeting this evening – he’s now opposed to the exploratory drilling because of the risk to our aquifer. Result!

Could this really be? A politician listening to the evidence and performing a 180 degree turn? Too good to be true surely?

Well yes – so it would seem 🙂

This morning on Twitter Charlie tweeted

Elphicke tweet

Elphicke tweet

This leads to an article which he bigs up shale gas as some sort of magical route to a low carbon economy.

The 180 degree turn has, it seems, become a 360.

We tweeted him asking him to explain but he hasn’t responded to us (although he has been active on Twitter since)

We’ll send him a link to this post and offer him the chance to provide a response for publication. It will be interesting to see, what he has to say.

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