One more heave! Ministers' pre-election fracking drive

| 9th September 2014
Green MP Caroline Lucas is a lone Parliamentary voice against fracking. But democratic pressure in constituencies could force others to join her camp. Photo: This account has been discontinued via Flickr.
Green MP Caroline Lucas is a lone Parliamentary voice against fracking. But democratic pressure in constituencies could force others to join her camp. Photo: This account has been discontinued via Flickr.
Ministers are determined to get fracking under way in the UK as fast as possible, so it's a 'fait accompli' in time for the election, writes Alex Stevenson. With a firm pro-fracking concensus in Parliament, only one thing can frustrate their plans - strong local campaigns to turn around MPs desperate for re-election in 2015. It even has a name: democracy.
The biggest threat to ministers' fracking plans comes from backbenchers representing rural constituencies across England's green and pleasant land - most of which are Conservative.

It's a question of fear. What secretly worries pro-fracking Conservative ministers, The Ecologist has learned, is that a Labour administration in power after 2015 might reverse the current coalition's efforts to make widespread fracking possible across the UK.

So in order to make it as hard as possible for the next government to reverse the plans of this one, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is accelerating efforts to get 'phase one' of fracking - as one government source calls the current drive - completed before polling day next May.

And they may succeed: none of the three mainstream parties that hold real clout in Westminster are likely to put up much of a fight any time soon.

Labour: intensely relaxed about shale

Right now an odd sort of rapprochement is taking place in Westminster. After years of glaring at each other suspiciously across the despatch boxes, government and opposition frontbenchers might be close to securing consensus on shale gas.

Labour has been creeping towards accepting fracking for some years now. In 2012 it set out a series of regulatory tests designed to limit localised environmental impact. Then, last month, the opposition tabled amendments to the infrastructure bill detailing these.

"If the government accept our amendments we'll be in a position where there is much more thorough regulation in place", said Tom Greatrex MP, Labour's Shadow Energy Minister. "But there are other issues."

These include the monitoring of methane gas, which remains the subject of a scientific study. A good excuse for Labour to delay its final endorsement of fracking until next year. In response, ministers are considering further concessions to get Labour firmly onside.

A bit more regulation is regarded by pro-fracking Conservatives as a price worth paying to win a swift political agreement. Even the industry has made it clear that they don't oppose the bulk of Labour's proposals.

Fracking firms' only serious concern with Labour's proposed regulation is the period of time needed to establish 'baseline' chemical levels in groundwater before drilling begins.

Labour is calling for a 12-month timeframe, but the United Kingdom Onshore Oil And Gas (UKOOG) would prefer "more flexibility in line with scientific advice". In some cases, says UKOOG, as little as three months may be sufficient. 

"The industry believes that there needs to be a balance between outright regulation and best practice and best available technique and look forward to further discussions with Labour around the detail of any proposed regulation", said a spokesman.

Nixing the NIMBYs

Oddly, the biggest threat to ministers' fracking plans comes from backbenchers representing rural constituencies across England's green and pleasant land - most of which are Conservative. These are the Middle Englanders - the ones who oppose fracking on the time-honoured tradition of 'not in my back yard'.

The biggest threat to ministers' fracking plans comes from backbenchers representing rural constituencies across England's green and pleasant land - most of which are Conservative.

Nick Herbert, a former government minister, is among them. Herbert supports fracking nationally, but rejected a proposal for explanatory drilling in his South Downs constituency earlier this year because it involved heavy lorry movements through a pretty local village.

"It's difficult to judge when the costs of renewable energy might fall", he says. "What the government must do is reassure those who have concerns about the environmental impact." He also sees an economic benefit in developing domestic gas sources, since "shale gas could substitute for gas from other countries."

Herbert, and the NIMBYs in his constituency, are always going to be a problem for the Government. But ministers have a 'carrot and stick' plan to reduce the number of times their campaigning actually stops drilling taking place.

Community engagement plans are being developed to combat their concerns. And landowners' and homeowners' rights to obstruct fracking under their property are being addressed in the Infrastructure Bill - which will allow energy firms to drill without the owner's permission.

Campaigners remain defiant, and confident too

Green campaigners are facing a considerable challenge. They are fighting against a firm pro-fracking consensus in Parliament, where arguments about climate change are seemingly only being voiced by a handful of MPs - most visibly the Green MP Caroline Lucas (see photo).

Herbert, in common with ministers, thinks the minority of the population that are seriously worried about fracking and its potentially severe impacts are irrelevant to the debate - and can be safely ignored

But away from Westminster the enemies of fracking remain defiant, and confident. For Hannah Martin, a coordinator of the Say No To Gas group, the imminent election in May 2015 provides the perfect opportunity to squeeze MPs seeking re-election on fracking.

Say No To Gas now comprises 200 community groups which have grown up in the last year or so to stop fracking in their areas, and more are being set up all the time. The network is providing an "unprecedented level of resistance" wherever energy companies seek permits for exploratory drilling, she says.

As for the outcome, she is sure MPs and even ministers will be eager to please concerned constituents in what is likely to be a very close-run election. "It is definitely stoppable", she insists.

Lib Dems: forgetting the long view

A key target will be Liberal Democrat incumbents desperate to win back popular support which has ebbed away during their time in government.

The party boasted about its environmentalist priorities while in opposition - but has done very little to restrain Conservative ministers in government. Following Cameron's promise to form Britain's 'greenest government ever', the result has been eco-catastrophe - and the Lib Dems must share the blame for that.

The party insists it has wrung concessions out of the Tories. Applications for exploratory drilling now have to be accompanied by a testing 'statement of environmental awareness'. Planning guidance makes clear drilling will be refused in sensitive areas - and if the frackers appeal, ministers can 'call in' the case to make a final judgement themselves.

None of these really address the fundamentals of shale gas extraction, though. They won't ensure the carbon from Britain's shale deposits stays in the ground. Nor will they stop the industrialisation and pollution of countryside which may not all be 'special' but is still hugely valued by local people.

Martin Horwood, a Lib Dem MP worried by fracking, says his concerns have shifted away from earthquakes to water contamination and the long-term impact on climate change. "There's still a lot of scepticism in the party", he argues.

But will it make any difference? At last year's autumn conference, the Liberal Democrats passed a motion giving the party's official blessing to fracking. But it did so in terms that allowed its numerous doubters to keep quiet.

Now the rush is on to implement the policy, we may see further signs of Lib Dem unrest this autumn. So watch the Lib Dem's party conference, where concerns over fracking may surface with renewed ferocity.

The coalition's junior partners are unlikely to trigger a big row over the issue if they can help it: on fracking, as with nuclear power, they have allowed the Conservatives to call the shots. But the whiff of a grassroots rebellion among the party ranks could change all that in the blink of an eye.

Ukraine - the joker in the pack

Another dimension is the enthusiasm of American shale gas producers to get into Europe's gas market. Encouraged by Europe's growing tensions with Russia, they want to take advantage of the situation and give their flagging industry a new lease of life.

One plan is to open up Europe as a huge new export market for US shale gas. But the US lacks the export infrastructure needed to do this, and realistically the necessary terminals cannot be in place for some years.

The other plan is to use gas shortages in Europe this coming winter to engineer a pro-fracking concensus - and open up Europe's fracking grounds to US companies.

Right-wing elements in the Ukraine government have already openly advocated closing Russia's gas pipelines to the EU, something that would suit US fracking interests down to the ground.

But either plan would be a disaster for the planet because - thanks to high energy inputs and fugitive methane emissions from fracking wells - the global warming impact of fracked gas is comparable to that of coal. Add in the impact of shipping from US ports and it only gets worse.

But how big can fracking get anyway?

The switch to low-carbon energy generation, mainly from wind and solar, means that demand for gas should fall dramatically over the next 15 years. By 2030, the International Energy Agency estimates, shale gas could only ever provide 10% of the UK's energy mix.

Then there is the problem that Europeans will strongly resist paying as much for their gas as the Japanese and emerging-economy countries do.

Some business analysts estimate replacing Russian gas with American shale gas would result in European gas prices doubling. Domestically produced shale gas will also need sustained high prices to be economcially viable, as it costs far more to produce than conventional natural gas.

"Realistically", says the IPPR think-tank's Joss Garman, "it's not going to be a significant part of the answer."

So the news is not all grim for the anti-frackers. Never mind the political support that fracking has engineered in the three main parties. Straightforward market economics might be enough to make sure that fracking never gets far beyond the starting gate.

Meanwhile determined anti-fracking campaigning aimed at MPs keen for electoral advantage in the 2015 election could make all the difference. It's called democracy - and since it only comes around ever five years, there's every reason to use it while we can.




Alex Stevenson is parliamentary editor of, and an occasional contributor to The Ecologist.


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