In May last year, the new energy secretary, Amber Rudd MP, claimed she had “put a rocket” under her officials “to put the local community back in charge” of their own neighbourhoods – a message many might have welcomed if she had made it as easy to fight fracking as it is to object to renewables.
A double standard persists, however, because in spite of a survey conducted by Rudd’s own department showing that only 21 % of people in the UK support fracking, local councils have been ordered to ‘fast-track’ fracking applications, and the Secretary of State for Communities, Greg Clark, is intervening to decide a controversial appeal by the company, Cuadrilla, who are seeking to frack in Lancashire. That appeal decision has been taken out of the hands of the planning inspector in what is viewed by many as a shamefully undemocratic response to the rejection of Cuadrilla’s fracking applications by Lancashire County Council last summer.
Precisely what is the purpose of us voting for councillors here in Kent, or anywhere else, if they have no power to democratically represent us over an issue as important and potentially life changing for us as fracking?
Rudd claimed that fast-tracking was necessary to prevent decisions on fracking applications being “dragged out for months or even years on end” but, in fact, the delays in Lancashire were caused by Cuadrilla forcing the council to defer its decision in January 2015 – when the recommendation was still for rejection. That the council’s final decision did not ultimately go Cuadrilla’s way was clearly a blow not only to the company but to our pro-fracking government which continues to go “all out for shale” – even at the expense of democracy.
As Vice Chair and Press Officer of the campaign group, East Kent Against Fracking, I maintained in my meetings with Kent MPs, Charlie Elphicke and Craig Mackinlay, that David Cameron’s commitment to the unconventional gas and oil industry remains misplaced on many levels. Not only have government promises of lower prices and greater energy security been dismissed as “hype” and “lacking in evidence” by reliable sources like the UK Energy Research Consortium, the current low price of oil – which is set to continue according to the Wall St Journal and other analysts – predicts that a shale industry in the UK will be commercially unviable.
The fracking experience in America has demonstrated that fracking does not create large numbers of stable jobs, and the US “boom” now looks to be over before fracking in the UK has even properly begun. US drillers are now in debt to the tune of $200 billion, sparking fears they could default and create contagion in junk bond markets – similar to the disastrous sub-prime mortgage collapse. At the time of writing, the price of crude oil stands at $29 per barrel, considerably lower than the “break even” sales price of $75- $80, so, does Amber Rudd have plans to subsidise an ailing fracking industry when only recently she withdrew subsidies to renewables?
Certainly, the environmental economist, Pavan Sukhdev, considers that a hard choice will soon have to be made by pro fracking governments: “earn the wrath of society by doing what they have always done – bailing out their friends in big business – or admit that they got energy policy wrong and make late and painful changes.”
While our own government is clearly frustrated in its ambitions for a UK fracking “boom”, it needs to remind itself that the suspension of fracking in this country was not caused by councillors reaching decisions at odd with those of energy ministers, but instead followed earthquakes that were triggered by the first instance of high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) in the UK – by Cuadrilla in Lancashire in 2011. These seismic events, though minor, were sufficient to cause deformation to the well casing which, in turn, had the potential to cause migration of contaminants. At the time, however, the company failed to recognise the significance of that event. So, when Amber Rudd maintains the government has developed “a regulatory system that does everything possible to allay people’s concerns and protect the environment,” I am minded to ask precisely where that regulatory regime was in 2011 – and why on earth we should trust it now, after regulatory bodies like the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency (EA) have suffered so many budget cuts.
In his position as chairman of CPRE Kent’s Environment Committee, the respected former Environment Agency hydrogeologist, Graham D. Warren, has repeatedly warned that the Chalk aquifer, which supplies up to 90% of Kent’s water, could be at risk of irreversible contamination from fracking and that nothing short of 24- hour monitoring of sites could ensure even a minimum of safety. Yet it is not unusual for sites to be left wholly unmanned, as protesters discovered when they entered the Doe Green site (near Warrington) last April. A Freedom of Information request submitted by cancer specialist, Dr Rebecca Martin, of Families Against Fracking, revealed that this site was operating without an EA permit and elicited the following confirmation from the HSE: “It is not unusual for a borehole site to be unmanned and operated remotely…” to which Dr Martin responded. “This industry is a real danger to people and our environment, the regulation is poor and no amount of government spin is going to change that.”
In spite of bold statements from Amber Rudd about a “gold standard” regulatory framework, there remains no guarantee that fracking can be conducted safely. The UN toxins expert, Dr Mariann Lloyd Smith has warned: “you can regulate fracking to make it safer but you cannot make it safe”, which surely begs the question that if there can be only a mitigation of risk involved, what risks are we expected to accept?
Last year, a 12-page DEFRA report on fracking’s potential impact on the rural economy was redacted in no fewer than 63 passages and confirmed that house prices close to drilling sites were likely to fall and that homeowners could suffer higher insurance “to cover losses in case of explosion on site.” It also stated that “Experience from the US” shows that “leakage of waste fluids …has resulted in environmental damage” and that “contaminated surface water….can affect human health indirectly through consumption of contaminated wildlife, livestock or agricultural products”. It admitted that “shale gas development may transform a previously pristine and quiet natural region, bringing increased industrialisation”, and that “rural community businesses that rely on clean air, land, water, and/or a tranquil environment may suffer losses from this change such as agriculture, tourism, organic farming, hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation.”
Those are the real facts of fracking as disclosed in a government department report but revealed only after pressure from Greenpeace and a decision from the Information Commissioner forced a reversal of the redactions. Regarding the negative effects of fracking on house prices (something for which promises of £100,000 incentive payments to communities could never possibly reimburse us) property owners in Lancashire have already seen 50-100% write-offs in value, and Ray Boulger, from the independent mortgage broker, John Charcol confirmed that: “The prospect of fracking in your area is a bit like putting a motorway or railway, like HS2, through your front garden – it’s going to have an impact on the valuation of your property.”
After the considerable flood damage and distress suffered recently by residents in the north of England, came news that if you happen to live within 5 miles of a fracking site – do not expect insurance cover. A recent investigation by Spinwatch found that “Companies representing two thirds of the UK insurance market will not insure against damage caused as a result of fracking, or else have exemptions covering potential pollution of water from the controversial technique.”
In 2013 after epic floods in Colorado, Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action warned: “Fracking and operating oil and gas facilities in floodplains is extremely risky. Flood waters can topple facilities and spread oil, gas, and cancer-causing fracking chemicals across vast landscapes making contamination and clean-up efforts exponentially worse and more complicated.” And yet, here in the UK, one in five of 150 new fracking sites have been designated as having a significant risk of flooding.
Fracking “experts” always considered that the upper limit of magnitude to be expected from any fracking induced earthquake would remain minor at 3.0, but a swarm of larger earthquakes has been triggered by fracking in Alberta, Canada, with a site closed indefinitely following a 4.8 earthquake that took place on January 12th.
All of which may prompt you to ask why our government continues to promote fracking when countries like France have the good sense to ban it? Perhaps the complex web connecting industry, ministers and lobbyists as illustrated in the chart below will offer some answers as to why our government has set itself on a collision course with more than 400 residents’ groups in this country, some of which, like Frack Free Sussex now have over 10,000 followers.
One thing is certain, those communities remain determined to protect their families’ health, the value of their homes and their precious environment from an industry that looks increasingly unable to make even a short term profit from the long term damage a redacted DEFRA report failed to hide.
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