Shale gas giant Cuadrilla is facing new questions about the transparency of its fracking operations as it can be revealed the firm has an agreement with a leading university to vet Freedom of Information (FOI) requests about its Lancashire earthquake data.
The agreement – obtained by i in redacted form under Environmental Information Regulations – says the university will take into account the firm’s representations on whether legal exemptions may apply for refusing to release the data or to even deny holding it.
In the event of the university deciding Cuadrilla’s information “cannot be withheld”, it has to give the firm two weeks’ notice to enable it to take steps to “protect” the information – including starting legal proceedings to prevent its disclosure.
Information requests analysed
The university, a member of the UK’s elite Russell Group of universities, has denied it is too close to the firm and has said it is “normal practice” for confidentiality provisions to be put in place between academics and private firms.
It said the agreement was made in November 2018 while the university’s seismologists – who are world leaders in the study of earthquakes – were researching seismicity at Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road, near Blackpool. The university said the data was later made public by the Oil and Gas Authority in June 2019.
But Dr Doug Parr, the chief scientist of Greenpeace UK, said: “Our view is that this type of agreement is incredibly wrong. The world urgently needs reliable, impartial information about the fossil fuel industry, its activities and their environmental impacts because some of those impacts threaten everyone’s survival. We simply can’t allow the industry itself to act as a gatekeeper to that information.
“If academia wants to continue its close co-operation with companies like Cuadrilla, then we need much stronger guarantees of transparency and independence.”
The existence of the University of Bristol’s agreement with Cuadrilla has come to light after i revealed last year that the firm had an agreement with the UK’s national earthquake monitoring agency to only release the firm’s operational data with its permission and to destroy confidential documents at the firm’s request.
Fracking was suspended at Preston New Road in August last year after homes were shaken by the UK’s largest fracking induced earth tremor, with residents saying they had heard a “deep, gutteral roar”
Boris Johnson went on to announce a moritorium on fracking in November after a scientific report by the Oil and Gas Authority warned it was not possible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes that fracking might trigger.
i asked the University of Bristol for a copy of any confidential agreements it holds with Cuadrilla following the earthquakes last August. In November, the university said it would respond “as soon as Cuadrilla have consented to the disclosures”, but later suggested it was only notifying Cuadrilla “as a matter of courtesy”.
The university released the requested information five months late after i complained about the delay to the Information Commissioner’s Office, which told the university to reply within 10 working days.
The university’s redacted agreement with Cuadrilla, obtained by i in the subsequent disclosure, says: “The university must not disclose any confidential information to any third party without Cuadrilla’s prior written consent, which may be withheld at Cuadrilla’s absolute and sole discretion.”
Tony Bosworth, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth said support for fracking was at an “all-time low” and stories of confidentiality agreements were “likely to erode support even more”.
Claire Stephenson from campaign group Frack Free Lancashire said there was a lack of transparency around fracking and earthquakes in Lancashire, adding: “It seems to us that Cuadrilla operates under a blanket of secrecy by releasing only the cherry-picked and sanitised information they’re happy for the public to see.”
A spokesman for the University of Bristol apologised for the delay and said it had fully co-operated with the Information Commissioner’s Office. It blamed staff shortages, an academic leaving the university and “liaising with a third party” for the delay and said it was committed to being open and transparent. Cuadrilla failed to respond to a request for a comment.
The university’s spokesman said the data processing agreement – along with a separate research agreement with Cuadrilla – contains standard “confidentiality provisions” .
He said: “All of the data used by Bristol researchers in their analysis of seismicity at Preston New Road was also placed into the public domain by the Oil and Gas Authority via its website in June 2019.
“It is normal practice for confidentiality provisions like this to be put in place between academics and private companies