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Background

Strategic Context

In recent times there has been increasing interest in, and increasing controversy over, the potential for onshore development of “unconventional” hydrocarbon energy sources, coupled with much greater focus on our existing oil and gas industry. The development of this industry could have major economic and security implications but has also raised substantial objections in the public mind. The Environment Agency (EA) has a key role to play in ensuring effective regulation of the onshore oil and gas industry and in protecting the environment. Yet in recent months, the EA has come under strong criticism from some parties who may suggest that decisions are not impartial or fair or based on sound science.  Some of the other reasons behind this may be a lack of understanding of the real role and the limits of the powers and duties of the EA, combined with a limited transparency in decision-making, particularly in assessment of relative risks. It may well be that expert views of risks do not address the public’s concerns.

Traditionally, EA research programmes have been developed through understanding evidence gaps and needs. Priorities and topics are reviewed on an annual basis by expert staff and internal customers within EA. A series of principles govern the evidence work of EA, but, although one of these principles states that EA will engage the public, this is not strongly developed.

The aim of this project therefore is to enable external, non-specialist, input to the future direction and priorities of Environment Agency research on work related to the environmental regulation of the onshore oil and gas industry. The insights gained will feed in to the EA’s:
-    Internal research plan updated annually in mid-year
-    Externally published “research priorities” document which is updated annually
-    Informal detailed research questions used to inform NERC and other research organisations
-    Operational public engagement activities around potential oil and gas sites

In the longer term, any changes to the direction or priorities in EA research work will feed through to EA operational activities and decisions in regulating this important industry.  
The Environment Agency is an Executive Non Departmental Public Body under the auspices of Defra.

Rationale for this Project

In identifying what research EA needs to undertake, some criticism may be expected whatever the choice.  Yet, in spending public resource, the traditional research plan process gives no voice to the public either directly or through their representatives.  In this high profile and contentious topic, the need is to better understand, document, address, and be seen to address, public concerns which may not be the same as our expert view.  However, because this is a contentious issue and because of limited experience in such work EA wished to take an approach which can allow a thoughtful interaction in a non-confrontational way. Simply carrying out public meetings in affected areas would be unlikely to achieve this.  

The internal EA research planning for 2106/17 is currently underway. In addition, there is a huge amount of other government funded research currently being planned and for which EA experts provide input sitting on Research Council and Departmental advisory committees.   

A sounding board project represents a cautious first step into responsible research for the EA on oil and gas. As well as advice on research topics, the board may well advise on what else is appropriate for us in engaging the public in future.

Aims and objectives

The overall objective of the work is: to enable public input to the future direction and priorities of Environment Agency research on work related to the environmental regulation of the onshore oil and gas industry; and to do this through a structured and non-confrontational dialogue that helps EA technical experts to better understand lay concerns and drivers. The outputs will inform EA internal approaches and better equip EA technical experts when they participate in external research governance.   

The key objectives for the project are:
1.    To explore and capture through dialogue the nature and extent of environmental concerns of participants about shale gas exploration and production in England.
2.    To help build the case for, and develop skills among those involved in the dialogue in using dialogue to influence research directions within the Environment Agency.
3.    To inform the direction and priorities of Environment Agency research on the onshore oil and gas industry, its approach to formulating regulation and its external communications where this is relevant.

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