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Dominic Lawson: Friends of the Earth, But Not of the Truth

Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

Friends of the Earth is corrupt in a noble cause. Which, unfortunately, means you cannot trust a word it says. Friends of the earth, but not of the truth.

Increased risk of cancer and plummeting house prices are the primordial terrors of the middle classes. This horrific combination of physical and financial ruin just happens to be the grim future facing households if fracking for natural gas is allowed in their vicinity . . . or that is what Friends of the Earth (FoE) claimed in leaflets soliciting money from the public in its campaign against this form of gas exploration and production.

But last week the environmental group agreed not to repeat, in any future promotional material, its assertions that such drilling would cause cancer to rise and house prices to slump. That, at least, was the impression of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

After two members of the public (one a retired vicar) and the gas exploration company Cuadrilla complained about the FoE leaflet in October 2015, the advertising regulator spent 14 months investigating the claims, before concluding they could not be substantiated and therefore should be withdrawn.

Not only that, but “future ads [must] not include claims that imply the fluid used in fracking contains chemicals dangerous to human health . . . that there is an established risk of the chemicals concerned causing cancer and other conditions among the local population, when used in fracking in the UK . . . that fracking will cause plummeting house prices”.

Imagine then the consternation at the regulator when an FoE spokeswoman, Rose Dickinson, insisted on both the BBC and Channel 4 News that the ASA had in fact “dropped the case” and that all FoE had agreed was “that particular old leaflet produced around a year and a half ago will not be distributed any more”. She went on to say that FoE “stand by absolutely everything we have said [about fracking]”.

On Thursday night, therefore, the ASA summoned Craig Bennett, chief executive of FoE, to a meeting in which he was asked to reassure the authority that he accepted the terms of the agreement and was reminded that it was only because of this agreement that the ASA had not moved to a formal ruling censuring the anti-fracking campaign.

Apparently Bennett gave the assurances sought. But when I spoke to the FoE chief executive on Friday he seemed anything but contrite — indeed, I am sure he sees no reason why he should be. He continued to insist he had evidence that fracking would cause house prices to “plummet”.

It is true the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs commissioned a review in 2014 of the effect of fracking on local house prices in America that suggested there could “potentially be a range of 0% to 7% reductions in property values within one mile of an extraction site”, but noted the evidence was “quite thin”.

Last week, in fact, the most recent examination of this matter in America concluded: “On average, counties with more [shale gas] production have household wages that are 8% higher and house prices that are 6% higher than in areas with less activity.”

This, perhaps, is why the Rev Michael Roberts, one of those who complained about the FoE leaflets, told the BBC how angry he had been at what he termed its “scaremongering”.

Not only was it causing unnecessary fears among parishioners in Lancashire, a county attractive to the frackers, but he doubtless saw that in a relatively deprived region a return of some industry would be a boon, not a blight.

Anyway, I pointed out to the FoE boss, even the most pessimistic projection of a seven-point fall in house prices within a one-mile radius was nothing like “plummeting”— the word for which accepted synonyms include “nosedive”, “crash” and “plunge”.

He just repeated: “I believe there is evidence that house prices will plummet.”

I could only respond that I was sure he did believe this evidence existed, but that the issue for the ASA was whether he could produce it. That was met with a long silence. I didn’t then have the will to discuss the cancer scare.

FoE lawyers had spent 14 long months failing to convince the ASA they had evidence of this allegedly mortal risk — not an experience I wanted to endure.

But the FoE chief executive did introduce one fresh point. He told me the chairman of the ASA, Lord Smith, “had led a taskforce to examine fracking which was funded by the industry itself”.

I was amazed by this unsubtle attempt to insinuate that the ASA’s integrity had in some way been corrupted in favour of fracking — and by Chris Smith, of all people, who had previously been chairman of the Environment Agency.

But I should not have been. It is the style of the green lobbying organisations to claim that anyone opposed to them must be motivated by purely financial interests. Of course they are right as far as the oil and gas companies themselves are concerned; they are in business to make profits.

But this tactic becomes base when directed even at those who disagree on scientific or moral grounds — along the lines that this can only be because they are “in the pay” of someone.

If I were to use the same tactic, I could point out that FoE is an entity that relies on fundraising to pay its many salaries and that the terrifying leaflet warning of the risks of cancer and plummeting house prices was accompanied by donation forms. “Your money could help us use the media to expose the truth about the dangers of fracking.” So the more successfully it scaremongers, the more money it can make.

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