The news that Natascha Engel who was appointed as Commissioner for Shale Gas which was also referred to as Fracking Tsar on 5th October 2018 and resigned over the weekend has raised all sorts of questions and concerns. There have been a number of TV and on-line interviews and snippets of her letter to Greg Clark has featured in many of them pointing out that in Natascha’s opinion “A perfectly viable and exciting new industry that could help meet our carbon reduction targets, make us energy secure and provide jobs in parts of the country that really need them is in danger of withering on the vine – not for any technical or safety reasons, but because of a political decision.” and she also explained that the role had been her ideal job but that “where you’ve got government in such terrible paralysis, you do have to do something as dramatic as this” in order to have your voice heard” and in reference to the fact that she believes that the current restrictions on ground tremor are preventing the industry from achieving its objectives she continued: “These points have been made repeatedly but ministers ignore them and instead allow campaign groups to drive policy.”
There is clearly a big question regarding what influence anyone outside of the Cabinet can expect to have over the Government even if they get appointed as a Tsar and then how much research Natascha carried out before taking on the role, because the issues she has concerns about are matters that needed negotiating before she accepted the job.
At the launch of the post Natascha explained
As the Commissioner for Shale Gas, I look forward to working closely with communities, regulators and industry to ensure facts are easily accessible as the process of shale exploration continues to develop.
And the energy and clean growth Minister Claire Perry said
This new role will provide a single point of contact for local residents to get the information they need and have their questions answered.
So there was very little indication that as Tsar, that Ms Engel was intended to be the changer of Government policies. However this story goes much deeper than Natascha’s own naivety or ignorance and raises questions about what is the purpose of a Tsar? Back in 2012 two academics Ruth Levitt and William Solesbury completed a piece of research entitled “Policy Tsars: here to stay but more transparency needed” and perhaps now we need them to carry out a revised version. At the time they explained that between 1997 and 2010 the Labour Government had appointed 300 Tsars and then from 2010 to 2012 the coalition had appointed 100. The question has to include what value for money do these non-executive commissioners bring to our nation?