Fracking parliamentary groups hang up their hard hats

Two of the fracking industry’s biggest cheerleaders in Westminster have ceased operating, the latest published list of all-parliamentary groups (APPGs) reveals.
The news will be welcomed by campaigners who have long argued these groups were a conduit for fracking interests to influence MPs and peers by the backdoor. 

The largest of the two groups, the APPG on Unconventional Oil and Gas (APPGUOG) was  launched in 2013 as fracking firms were stepping up a multi-million-pound PR campaign to sell their controversial industry to ministers, parliamentarians and the wider public. 
At its peak, the group had over 100 members. Its secretariat was run by two giant lobbying and PR agencies; first Edelman until 2014 and then Hill & Knowlton Strategies ever since. The latter is on record as carrying out a whopping £154,000 worth of services between 2015 and 2017 - one of the highest secretariat costs among 550 APPGs. H&K clients in recent years include the climate-denying oil giant Exxon, and Shell, which has fracking interests abroad and was an APPG member.
Originally set up to ‘debate and explore the potential for developing [shale gas] reserves’, the APPGUOG in reality offered its fracking donors and lobbyists easy access to Westminster’s politicians.
Over its four-year lifespan, the group raked in hundreds of thousands of pounds from ‘membership’ fees paid by giant energy companies like Centrica, Shell and Total and major league frackers Cuadrilla and IGas, as well as firms with their eye on a potential fracking bonanza. 
Its expert ‘advisory panel’ was led by INEOS, the UK’s biggest shale gas explorer which recently slapped a High Court injunction on protestors in its proposed drilling areas. Outspoken trade body UKOOG and the pro-shale Institute of Directors were also listed as advisory experts, alongside environmental group WWF and academics. 
Many of the APPG’s parliamentary officers, notably chairman Nigel Mills, Jim Fitzpatrick, Angela Smith, Mark Menzies and David Nuttall, were pro-shale too, regularly voicing their support for the nascent industry in parliamentary debates and votes. One of its original MP members and vice-chairs, Charles Hendry, was a former Tory energy minister and ex-PR man. Nevertheless, chair Nigel Mills insisted the group was 'strictly neutral',
APPGs, which are informal cross-party parliamentary groups, have long been criticised as prone to co-option by vested interests across a myriad of issues from alcohol to football. Several parliamentary inquiries in recent years have led to slightly improved transparency regarding finances and meeting minutes, however some APPGs still use PR and lobbying firms to run their secretariats, sparking concern that APPGs are being used to bypass lobbying laws.
Indeed, it was pressure from APPGUOG vice-chairman Kevin Hollinrake’s own constituents over the group’s fracking PR firm links and ‘unacceptable’ industry funding that forced the Conservative MP to resign from the group in January 2016.  
Hollinrake, whose Thirsk and Malton constituency includes Third Energy’s now approved Kirby Misperton fracking site, subsequently set up his own APPG on ‘Shale Gas Regulation and Planning’ in February last year. From the outset, he argued that this ‘self-funded’ group was not pro-shale gas, but rather a ‘key body’ to make sure the industry was ‘fit for purpose’. Many campaigners and local residents opposed to fracking, however, accused it of bias.
The APPG hosted high-profile pro-shale speakers like the former energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, and ran five meetings during 2016 on issues such as waste water regulation, community compensation and impacts. It was supposed to produce a report on its overall findings earlier this year, but nothing has been published as yet.
Neither group has made public statements on why they have closed shop. However, Kevin Hollinrake’s appointment after the June election as parliamentary private secretary (PPS) to environment secretary Michael Gove is possibly a key factor, given the strict rules for PPS staff regarding potential conflicts of interest. 

Hollinrake's APPG website remains online but has not been updated since its last December 2016 meeting, other than to note that a March 2017 meeting was cancelled.
The APPGUOG website run by Hill & Knowlton however has been offline since at least August. A web archive page shows it was last functioning on 7 July with a note stating that, given the dissolution of Parliament, the APPG had no status until further notice. 
It seems likely that the decision to cease the APPGUOG was taken in July, when MPs typically form APPGs for the new Parliament. We have asked both Kevin Hollinrake, and Nigel Mills for comment and will update if they respond.
The move leaves just two APPGs representing oil and gas interests in the UK; the British Offshore Parliamentary Group, and the Oil Refining Sector Group.

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