Journalists often describe the high months of summer as ‘The Silly Season’. This is because the politicians go into recess, other institutions also close down for the summer and so newspaper editors have to fill their pages with silly stories of little consequence. In fact if this was ever true it is no longer the case. The politicians don’t really take proper holidays and can’t keep out of the news. Donald Trump is always in the news and Theresa May is not far behind with her efforts to somehow reconcile all the contradictions of the nation’s decision to leave the European Union.
However, in my blogs I do try to follow this tradition and so this summer have written about the World Cupl, Smoked Salmon, the Countryside and Chilean Trees. But now the summer is over and this week I want to bring to your attention a very serious matter.
When I started writing these blogs back in 2009 my intention was primarily writing about business issues based on my own experience and judgement and not to write about politics and economics. My purpose was to drive traffic to my personal website with a view to selling my services as a consultant. Over the years that has changed and now I write about a whole range of subjects and judging by the feedback that I get my readers enjoy this. But I have never sought to use this particular pulpit as one for campaigning even though I have often expressed strong opinions about issues that concern me. But this week I have become so incensed by something that I feel that I have no choice but to write about it in a campaigning manner.
In a truly shocking announcement in May, the government announced proposals that could force fracking through the planning system. If successful, local communities could lose their power to block fracking decisions in their areas – and hundreds of exploratory wells could be drilled in the countryside against the will of local people.
Public consultations on the government’s plans to fast-track fracking are well under way and will close at the end of October. There are two proposals on the table that must be stopped:
Proposal 1: remove the need to apply for planning permission for exploratory drilling
. Test drilling for shale gas would be treated as ‘permitted development’ – intended for developments that have no unreasonable local impact. This could make it as easy to drill an exploratory fracking well as it is to build a conservatory, erect a garden fence or convert a loft space. This would bypass the democratic scrutiny that other types of major development undergo. As far as the planning process goes, the fracking industry could drill well after well – and the concerns of local communities would be ignored.
Proposal 2: take decisions out of local control for full-scale fracking applications.
At the same time as making exploring for shale gas much easier, the government also wants to approve full-scale fracking proposals through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime. This means that applications to frack would be treated in the same way as railway lines and runways, with decisions made centrally by government. Local councils would no longer have the power to decide on fracking in their areas.
The government has been driving fracking through despite massive local and public opposition based on well-reported environmental and health risks. These proposals ignore planning rules that protect the countryside from cumulative damage. Our landscapes could become an industrial testing ground, leading to full-scale fracking taking place across the country. There would be convoys of HGVs thundering down narrow country lanes and unsightly drilling rigs scarring the environment. Only in 2014, a draft government report admitted that ‘shale gas development may transform a previously pristine and quiet natural region, bringing increased industrialisation.’[i]
Not only would fracking destroy the tranquility of the countryside but it could bring serious damage to the climate and to public health. The British Geological Survey states that the process of injecting a cocktail of chemicals underground to fracture rock and release shale gas and oil has the potential to contaminate groundwater.[ii]
In England, one third of our drinking water comes from groundwater. In the British Medical Journal, twenty of the UK’s leading medical experts have said ‘the arguments against fracking on public health grounds are overwhelming’.[iii]
The process can also cause earthquakes and consumes colossal amounts of water, potentially leading to severe shortages. It’s also clear that the government’s pursuit of shale gas directly ignores the UK’s legally binding carbon reduction targets, which we’re already failing to meet. Actually parts of the UK are opposed to fracking as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have already said No to fracking or have a moratorium in place. Indeed our other near neighbours, the Republic of Ireland, France, Germany and the Netherlands have all said the same.
July, the government chose to ignore the wishes of local people and overruled Lancashire County Council by granting consent to begin fracking at Preston New Road, just a few miles away from Roseacre. This is the first application to be approved for full-scale fracking since fracking was suspended in 2011 after causing a minor earthquake in the same area. Even working within the current system, this is worrying evidence of their misguided intentions on fracking.
So how do the government’s arguments for fracking stack up? The government’s own research shows that our current energy arrangements can satisfy demand for the next twenty years, without the need for shale gas. [iv]
In the energy business twenty years is the normal period for assessing reserves and what always happens is that new sources are always found. In the next twenty years, with a proper commitment to renewable energy, the UK could transform its energy security with for example some of the highest levels of tidal flow in the world.
What about the so-called jobs boom? Just 11 jobs will be created at Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston New Road in Lancashire.[v]
Local jobs could also be lost as fracking industrialises the countryside, damaging tourism and the businesses that serve it.
It is also unlikely that fracking will reduce energy bills. Even the former chairman of Cuadrilla admitted that shale gas would not have a material impact on gas prices.[vi]
People may point to the apparent success of shale gas in the USA. There has also been widespread opposition to the growth of fracking in America on environmental and health grounds, but the USA is a vast country and has 75 times the land area of England.
Licenses have already been awarded in huge areas of England both in the North and in the South. Under the current system, fracking companies awarded licenses to explore for shale gas need to apply for planning permission to drill. But if the government’s proposals become reality, permission would no longer be required and the floodgates of toxic chemicals would open.
Fracking should not go ahead unless the government can prove it would: