EU Referendum

Energy: fracking revisited


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Earlier this week, we reported on the European Parliament vote on shale gas, based on the parliament's own press release.

On the basis of this official report, we in turn reported that the parliament had approved, by 332 votes to 311 with 14 abstentions. an amended Commission proposal on environmental impact assessments. This, if implemented, could severely handicap the exploitation of shale gas, to the extent that it could make drilling in this country uneconomic, bringing to an end any prospects of a shale gas boom.

Certainly, the EEB was very happy with the amendment, crowing that the text adopted by the committee explicitly included "the use of interim measures to ensure the [drilling] project does not start before the review process is completed", thereby causing the maximum of cost and delay.

However, review of the session minutes, which only become available a few days after the vote – and then a re-reading of the press release – tells a slightly different story, illustrating, if nothing else, the complexity of the EU's legislative procedures.

The upshot is that, entirely for procedural reasons, the news is not quite as bad as it might appear from the EP press release – yet. And, depending on the final outcome, it could be better. But then, it could be worse.

To understand this somewhat ambivalent assertion, one has to delve into the deepest realms of nerdery, to explore areas of procedure at depths where humans are hard-put to survive.

In essence, we can see from the minutes (link above – see page 15) that, rather than one, there are two final votes. The first of the two is a vote on the "Commission proposal", where MEPs vote on the original proposal, as amended. And it is this version which incorporates the damaging amendments which could bring drilling to a halt. This was actually carried by 339 votes to 293, with 28 abstentions.

Following this vote, however, is the "legislative resolution" which contains "a statement as to whether Parliament approves, rejects or proposes amendments to the proposal for a legislative act".

In accordance with parliamentary rules, though, if the Commission has not stated its position on each of Parliament's amendments or has announced that it does not intend to adopt all them all, the rapporteur is required to ask parliament whether to postpone the final vote (Rule 57(2)).

In this case, Connie Hedegaard (pictured, top), deputising for Commissioner Poto?nik, provides the missing link, neither supporting the amendments nor making a statement on the Commission position. And so, as a result, that's exactly what we saw: a proposal for a postponement, the effect of which was to refer the substantive legislative proposal back to committee. That's where the 332 votes came in. 

What is then supposed to happen is that the committee tables amendments "seeking to reach a compromise with the Commission". In this instance, though, rapporteur Mr Andrea Zanoni seems to have treated the vote as a "mandate" to negotiate "a first-reading agreement with EU ministers" – according to the EP press release.

I am not sure this is right, but so arcane is the procedure that anyone can be forgiven for making a mistake. Nevertheless, mistake it probably is - if I have understood the procedure correctly. And in any case, the "EU ministers" – i.e., the Council – have not voted on the proposal. There is no "common position" and, therefore, there could be no negotiations, even if they were part of this stage of the procedure.

The crucial thing, though, is the statement by Connie Hedegaard. She says that the Commission, as part of its work programme for 2013, is preparing a specific initiative on shale gas drilling. This will, "of course", take into account any further proposals from the European Parliament.

Putting this together, it looks as if the damaging amendment(s) will be withdrawn, against the assurance that the Commission will act. That is the good news. The bad news is that specific regulations on shale gas are being framed. These will go much further than the parliament's amendments, and could be much, much worse.

There is the rub. An industry vital to the British economy, holding out the promise of an energy bonanza, is going to be held to ransom by our masters in Brussels, and all we can do is hope that the damage is not so great that it will destroy the prospects entirely.