The Hatch Regeneris Leaks: Department for the Economy Hoping Against Hope.

The appearance of the previously unpublished Hatch Regeneris Report into fracking and petroleum exploration by Extinction Rebellion on EcoLeaks raises a number of questions for government in Northern Ireland.

Fundamentally, it works to highlight some contradictions between the procedural definition of democracy – where government is about the law and the process of policymaking – and a substantive one – where accountability is measured not just in election results but in the responsiveness of government to pressing needs and injustices.

The Hatch Report

The report, which was commissioned last October and apparently delivered to the Department for the Economy in July this year cost £69,000 – a figure and a timescale that led some environmental activists to worry that the whole process was ‘insufficient’ to tackle the ‘issues at hand’.

There was also a feeling that it was simply a rubber-stamping exercise to allow the approval of petroleum exploration applications.

Given the fact that the Republic’s 2016 laws on fracking are robust in their prohibition, activists in the South also felt that approval in the North would open the backdoor to petroleum exploration across the island as a whole.

This is undoubtedly a danger, as Shauna Corr and Sam McBride have since pointed out. However, as the authors of the report admit there is much need for more study before rolling out such a major long-term policy.

Taken together, for the leaks comprise a Key Messages section and a 58-paragraph Executive Summary, the overall conclusions veer definitively towards a position of too much risk for no or scant reward. Indeed, the word ‘uncertainty’ appears twenty times across the five and a half thousand words of the two documents.

In the context of the size of the NI economy, as well as its energy sector, the scale of potential GVA [gross value added] and employment impacts are shown to be relatively low, even under the high development scenario.

The fairly modest scale of economic impact can be attributed to the combination of the scale of development and the relatively limited scope to capture the associated expenditure and supply chain impacts within Northern Ireland.

NI is unlikely to achieve the economies of scale and low costs of production which would provide a major benefit from lower energy prices.

Indeed, what certainty there is seems to be that beyond the minimal (if any) economic benefits, the potential for long-term, unintended and unpredictable damage is very real. In a perhaps unwitting echo of Donald Rumsfeld’s (in)famous epistemological exposition on the eve of the Iraq War, the leaked documents point out to the many unknown variables at play.

These include gaps around the long term public health impacts beyond post-closure as well as cumulative or transboundary effects for either physical or mental health and wellbeing and the lack of available evidence about the impact of induced seismic events on people, Including their physical health and safety, as well as less tangible impacts on mental wellbeing anxiety and stress.

In short, the demands of technocratic policy design are clashing with the grey zones of public health, while also placing at risk agricultural safety and productivity and the potential to develop green tourism in a post-pandemic context.

The Process of Policymaking

At a less abstract level, quite apart from the environmental, health, agricultural and tourism concerns that stand to be impacted by petroleum exploration, the entire process raises significant questions about what exactly is going on in the Department for the Economy.

The Minister responsible, Gordon Lyons, pointed out earlier in November in a response to a question by Rachel Woods, that the Report would inform departmental thinking which would inform the Executive’s ‘evidence-based policy options’ He went on to state that

I hope to be in a position to bring those options to my Executive colleagues later in the year. The preferred option will then be subject to public consultation. The research on the impacts of mineral exploration is at an earlier stage, however, and will inform the Department’s initial consideration of the scope of the issues to be considered.

If there are no meaningful benefits to Northern Irish society why is the Minister even talking about options? The answer, as one the most insightful and comprehensive analysts of the entire saga has pointed out, is that the Department believes that it is in hoc to the companies.

As pointed out previously on these pages, the legislative environment is structured by a 1963 Act introduced by Brian Faulkner. As early as 2013 the Department was stating that it ‘would have no legal basis for “interrupting” the Licensing process and/or for failing to proceed to Licence if all initial assessments have been “passed” by the Company’.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the DoE is dedicated to moving policy that is inimical to the interests of public health, tourism and agriculture – and that is diametrically opposed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 recognition that fossil fuels are causing global warming and ought to be phased out. Furthermore, it is doing this because it believes that the petroleum industry has a lien on government.

A democratic hope?

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière once suggested that ‘It remains important today to be able to judge if what our institutions, our images, and our discourses imitate is democratic hope or its mourning’.

The petroleum licensing situation is fraught: It places the DoE and big petroleum business against the people of Fermanagh and the island of Ireland as a whole. Yes: The DoE may well be following process and are operating in a policy environment created in the 1960s; but yes, too, the issue is not negligible; it involves the major existential question of the twenty-first century: the intersection of fossil fuels and capitalism with climate change.

Within this engagement of democracy-as-process or democracy-as-responsiveness one key element might be lost and it behoves us to recognize the leaker(s) who went to Extinction Rebellion and EcoLeaks in the first instance.

As such, the Source(s) who leaked the material has to be commended for their courage in trying to draw attention to a dangerous policy that threatens to run under the radar of the local media.

In Rancierean terms the Source(s)’s example offers hope. But, to extrapolate from the putative intentions of the source, it is also necessary sure to recognize that the policy creates also a perilous moment for the Executive and democracy in Northern Ireland – after all, hope was the last and worst evil left in Pandora’s jar.

To put it another way: If the DoE pushes ahead with its bid for petroleum exploitation then a major blow will be dealt to the democratic functionality of devolved government.

Or from another angle: If the Executive does not take the uncertainty articulated in the Hatch Regeneris leak seriously and stand against the petroleum interests, then what will it ever stand for?

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