Analysis: An uncertain future for Britain’s fracking watchdog

When the nimbyism has been dismissed and the quarrels over compensation muted, the shale gas debate comes down to one, simple unanswered question: can the promises of the fracking lobby really be put into practice?

Most of the horror stories seen in the US – flames coming out of taps, dead tree wastelands, contaminated water complaints – are easily written off in Britain. Those desperate to get fracking in the UK simply point to the watchdogs, an easy go-to bogeyman, as an easy group to blame.

Contrast the patchy, disinterested attitude of the American regulators with the British equivalent. At a shale gas industry conference in Manchester earlier this year, the Environment Agency's representative arrived armed with a powerpoint presentation designed to show just how rigorous its supervision of fracking would be. David Forster's flashy presentation briskly worked through a long list of environmental perils posed by fracking. But he promised "detailed technical guidance for operators" to help them deal with the issues this posed. The general impression was of a brisk, thorough approach to regulation. It's exactly what the politicians want.

Yet there is a problem. More and more people are starting to worry about whether or not this promise will actually be deliverable.

"The Environment Agency is suffering very substantial staff cuts and core budget cuts," says Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr, who's deeply concerned about the impact fracking could have on the UK. "At the same time they're having to get to grips with the whole new potentially industry which could be quite expensive, if one follows the hopes of the bullish frackers."

'Substantial' is something of an understatement. Owen Paterson's Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was hit by cuts of ten per cent in 2010 and that level was continued earlier this year, in the one-year spending review for 2015/16.

The Environment Agency is paying the price. Much of the damage is to flood defence spending, but the worry is that the squeeze faced by the body will hit its fracking regulation too. It is shedding 1,700 staff by October next year, cutting back from 11,250 to around 9,700. And it is about to be handed a whole new industry to deal with. No wonder the environmentalists hoping to escape a repeat of the American experience are getting nervy.

As Parr puts it: "There have to be significant doubts about whether the regulatory agencies are in a fit state, in political and reasonable terms, to take on a whole new industry that's got a great deal of political support at the highest levels."

Dan Byles, a Tory MP on the Commons' energy and climate change committee, disagrees. He says the arguments for keeping fossil fuel in the ground are now becoming more pressing. Ultimately, though, he believes fracking should go ahead – and that the regulatory regime can do its job.

"Everybody who is important in this discussion entirely understands that," he insists. The Royal Society stressed the need for robust regulation in its influential report on the potential of the industry. The Department for Energy and Climate Change's own chief scientist, David Mackay, has declared in a recent report the chemical and radiation risks were not a problem, but added the qualifier of 'so long as the watchdog does its job'.

Right now, the Environment Agency says it has got the resources to do the job. That is mostly because there is very little fracking actually going on, though. If it does take off, as ministers hope, the idea is the drillers will pay a licence fee for their environmental permits.

"It's funded by the industry as it goes along," Byles explains. "As the industry grows larger and pay their fees for those licences, the Environment Agency gets the money in order to do the work."

The energy firms hoping to make money out of Britain's vast shale gas resources are desperate to get started. Last week one chief executive even told a committee of peers the country's energy security was endangered by the delay caused by clunky planning permit bureaucracy. The 'lights will go out' card is a constant theme of the dialogue between ministers and energy bosses, but it's such a big warning it has to be listened to.

It is that pressure on the coalition government, which has voiced its enthusiasm for shale gas because it would be "irresponsible" not to explore its possibilities, which worries environmentalists. The potential economic boost is so sizeable it's feared any regulatory ruffles might go unsmoothed.

"The question for the UK is not 'is it true that these things can be handled theoretically', but 'will they be handled in practice'?" Parr says.

"Can one be confident that if a problem emerged, would the Agency feel either they couldn't raise it or if they did, it would be robustly treated?"

The bickering over lorry routes and headlines about earthquakes will continue. As fracking develops, though, it's the watchdog which will need keeping an eye on.