King’s Credibility

  • Date: 08/01/14
  • Andrew Montford, Bishop Hill

In an article in the Guardian last year, Fiona Harvey described Sir David King’s concerns over shale gas development. The great man was apparently not impressed.

Sir David King warns against fracking

Former UK scientific adviser says gas from unconventional sources could have huge environmental consequences

That was the headline, and the impression that he was against shale development was repeated right at the start of the article:

Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, has warned of the “enormous environmental consequences” of attempting to fulfil the UK’s gas needs by fracking…

And lest there remain any doubt, we were told once again a few paragraphs later:

“It will not be a game-changer here as it has been in the US,” he told the Guardian in his first interview since his new appointment. “You will not be able to do that and there would be enormous environmental consequences.”

After the article appeared, however, King tweeted that he had called for proper regulation and had not issued a warning against fracking.

In his evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee yesterday, Sir David was repeatedly asked about the interview, but told Lord McFall that he did not say the words ascribed to him:

…I did not say it…they are not direct quotes…I am happy to be able to say that I did not say that…this is completely out of line with everything I had been saying and had already been saying to the media before that interview. But I think that what was picked up and expanded and turned into something else were my comments about public acceptance…

Near the start of the session he told Lord McGregor:

…that is not in inverted commas and if it was I would say I never said anything of the kind. What I was talking about is the high density population of Britain and the difficulty of seeing planning permission take place on the scale that could even come close to matching the scale in the United States.

Given that the key remark appears no less than three times in Harvey’s article, it would be pretty surprising if it turned out that she had invented it. In fairness though, Kinghad given a more mixed message on shale in an earlier interview, explaining that some of the fears over shale were unfounded, but expressing concern over others. Some time before that he had told Nature of how bad the economics of shale were, which just goes to show what he knows.

This worrying impression about the inconsistencies in King’s story were reinforced when he was pressed on his suggestion that high population density is a major barrier to shale developments in the UK. Lord Lawson pointed out that shale development had taken place in areas of the US of high population density without any problems at all. King’s reply was interesting:

In think it would be incorrect…to say it’s caused no problems whatever. There is quite an outcry among certain parts of the population in the United States and in one state there is quite a strong move to ban fracking. It has caused an outcry when it has moved into high population areas.

Lawson pressed him, pointing out that there were always people agitating for a ban, but King said that the two countries were not comparable.

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