With more fracking licenses being granted this month opening up virtually the whole of Greater Manchester and Salford for drilling (see here), the controversial decision to allow test fracking in North Yorkshire and the news that Salford is now the second worst city in England for pollution (see here), climate change, air quality and fossil fuel extraction is becoming a central issue in the race to become Greater Manchester Mayor in 2017.
At the moment the Labour Party, almost nailed on to win, has three candidates vying for the nomination to stand for Mayor – Andy Burnham, MP for Leigh, Ivan Lewis, MP for Bury South, and Tony Lloyd, the current interim GM Mayor. Burnham got the first green cred this week when he declared himself (kind of) opposed to fracking...
"This decision in North Yorkshire has clear and worrying implications for Greater Manchester" he told the Salford Star "It sets an unhelpful precedent and could bring forward plans for fracking in our communities. As the MP for Leigh, I have looked in detail at the fracking licences in my constituency and have seen no evidence to satisfy me that it is safe to frack in a former coalfield area or indeed anywhere.
"People have a right to know where I would stand on fracking in Greater Manchester if I was elected Mayor" he explained "While the decision would be for councils, my position would be to recommend a Greater Manchester-wide presumption of opposition to fracking unless and until the evidence changes. I have seen how states in the US such as New York have taken a stance against fracking and I think Greater Manchester should do the same.
"As Mayor, my focus would be on building the jobs of the future rather than the past" he added "Fracking for fossil fuels seems to me to belong to the last century, not this one, and does not produce the quality jobs in the numbers that some have claimed. Instead, I want a Greater Manchester that is building the future and leading the way on renewable energy. That is where our focus should lie."
While opposition to fracking is media sexy at the moment, it is indelibly tied to issues around climate change and fossil fuel extraction in general. Currently, the Greater Manchester Pension Fund, which holds pensions for public sector staff throughout the region including those working for Salford Council, invests around ten per cent of its holdings in fossil fuel companies; that's £477 per GM resident.
However, this contrasts with a current Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) Climate Change and Low Emissions Strategies' Implementation Plan (2016-20), which aims to cut fossil fuel dependency on gas, oil and coal, and reduce 2020 carbon emissions by 48% compared to 1990.
There's been a big campaign by Greater Manchester Fossil Free to demand that the Fund should "freeze new investments in fossil fuels, divest from any company involved in the exploration or production of coal and unconventional oil or gas within two years and from all fossil fuel companies within five years; and work with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to develop and fund a low-carbon investment programme for Greater Manchester".
The campaign has now written an open letter* to Tameside Labour Councillor Kieron Quinn, the Greater Manchester Pension Fund Chair, after remarks he made in the media last week, arguing that engagement with fossil fuel companies was a superior approach to divestment...
"In your interview you agreed with us on the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground as part of a major transformation in global energy systems to renewable" wrote the campaign "However, you disagreed with us that divestment is an effective way of pursuing that goal, instead arguing for engagement as a shareholder with fossil fuel companies. Could you set out the specific goals of your engagement strategy? We are somewhat sceptical, we must admit, because fossil fuel companies are just that, fossil fuel companies, with an interest in the exploitation of fossil fuel reserves rather than the promotion of alternative forms of energy. What is it you hope to achieve by engagement?
"In the light of the above, could you say what the successes of your engagement strategy have been so far?" the letter asks "Is it possible to quantify them in terms of saved emissions or investments in alternative energy? Or is success limited, as we suspect, to adoption of resolutions to improve risk management in relation to unburnable reserves and stranded assets?...We, and the 4,000 people who have added their voice to our petition, believe that there is no ethical, financial or scientific reason to retain investments in the fossil fuel industry."
Councillor Quinn has, so far, not responded. The Salford Star asked all three of the hopeful Labour Party GM Mayor candidates for their views on fracking and whether they support the Greater Manchester Fossil Free campaign's aim of divestment. Andy Burnham was the only candidate to reply. But while he gave his views opposing fracking he didn't respond to the question on the GM Pension Fund divesting from fossil fuel companies.
Meanwhile, Jenny Ross, of Frack Free Greater Manchester, believes that even his "presumption of opposition to fracking unless and until the evidence changes" should be questioned...
"We welcome that since the Parliamentary vote on the moratorium, Andy Burnham has recognised the strength of feeling against fracking in Greater Manchester as well as the many risks to local people's health, land, air and water" says "The Barton Moss protests proved fracking is not welcome here and it is encouraging that this message is now being echoed in the Greater Manchester Mayoral race.
"Over in Yorkshire the will of the people is being railroaded in favour of big business, so it's pleasing to see the people of this region afforded more respect by someone asking to represent them" she adds "If Andy Burnham continues to intuitively lead the people of Greater Manchester away from fossil fuels and towards a clean, renewable future he will be the only man yet to do justice to devolution and democracy among Labour Mayoral candidates. However, first he must recognise that no 'evidence change' regarding fracking safety could ever alter the fact that, even if it was possible to get the gas out of the ground without irrevocably contaminating our land and water, we still can't afford to burn it."
Will any future Greater Manchester Mayor lead the region away from fracking, introduce major energy changes, steer the GM Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels and sort the deathly air pollution that is choking the towns and cities? It's certainly becoming a huge issue, as candidates vying to get into the Mayoral race jockey for their green positions...
* To read the full open letter to Councillor Quinn - click here
** See also previous Salford Star articles on GM devolution - click here and click here
• See also the Salford Star article on the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) Climate Change and Low Emissions Strategies' Implementation Plan (2016-20) - click here