The question was asked last week at a Guardian Live event in Manchester entitled ‘Fracking – friend or foe?’ On the panel was Dr Nick Riley, formerly Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society and clearly an enthusiastic supporter of fracking. He tried to look sincere as he answered that it was “for the people”. He was drowned out by laughter.
The room was inevitably filled with concerned citizens from around the north west, and there’s no doubt from the comments and questions that here it very much feels like fracking is for the benefit of the fracking industry and central government and not for the people at all. As one member of the audience put it: it feels like it is being “done to us”.
Lancashire is the Front Line in this Battle
Lancashire has been at the forefront of the UK’s nascent shale gas industry and two Cuadrilla sites on the Fylde may soon become the test bed for the so called shale gas revolution.
Small earthquakes caused by Cuadrilla’s activity in 2011 saw a moratorium put in place, but once it was lifted the company submitted plans for up to four wells at each of two sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre wood. Each of these sites would see hundreds of fracks – the high pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals – to see how much gas can be released.
Planning officers last month concluded that the increase in night-time noise from the operations would be too great at both sites and that heavy truck movements would involve a “severe” increase in traffic, particularly HGVs. The decision by the council was therefore deferred for eight weeks to allow for further public consultation, but this has angered some people as it gives Cuadrilla more time to tinker with their application and manipulate the planning system.
Removal of Democracy
Many at the debate in Manchester last week argued that there has been a removal of democracy from the whole process from start to finish. As one Lancashire councillor who was in the audience pointed out, plans to introduce fracking in the UK wasn’t in any of the election manifestos of the three main parties in the lead up to the last General Election, yet all three are supportive of this new fossil fuel industry in some form.
The coalition government came to power promising Localism. But when they don’t like local decisions, they change the rules. The humongous ‘Infrastructure Bill’ that has now been passed into law will in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent. A new quango will be set up, to be known as the Homes and Communities Agency, where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just two inspectors will control many of our planning decisions. This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.
Also part of this enormous piece of legislature is the Trespass Law, which allows drilling beneath our homes without our permission.
Whilst it seemed at first that Labour would only back the bill if the Tories agreed to their strict regulatory protections, these protections were ultimately watered down. The new protections will rule out fracking in certain protected areas such as national parks, but it is not yet clear if this will include all the areas initially intended. Groundwater source areas should also be protected, but this is clearly not a priority for government or the opposition as the definition was weakened in the final draft by removing reference to Groundwater Source Protection Zones 1-3, as defined by the Environment Agency.
In any case, these new protections will not effect Cuadrilla’s two sites in Lancashire. So now ministers need to explain why if fracking is too risky in our National Parks, how is it safe for the rest of the UK? As Louise Hutchins at Greenpeace UK has said, why is it “too risky for the South Downs, but perfectly safe in the Lancashire countryside?”