Earlier today I was in Balcombe, where local people are resisting attempts by Cuadrilla to begin exploratory drilling ahead of possible fracking. It was inspiring to see a local community displaying such determination to oppose a technology which has the potential to harm their local environment for decades to come, as well as undermine efforts to tackle the climate crisis. Despite the slightly odd comments reportedly made by the Energy Minister, the people I met didn’t live behind “rectory walls”, and their concerns went beyond “flaring at the end of the drive”. Many of them were local residents who told me this was the first time they had taken part in a protest and had been moved to take direct action because they’d exhausted all other means of making themselves heard. Around 85% of local residents are opposed to fracking, with a range of understandable concerns - backed up by evidence - including possible groundwater contamination, well leaks and high volumes of water use.
Throughout the debate on shale gas extraction, ministers have claimed to listen to these concerns, but justified pro-fracking policies, partly on the basis that the use of shale gas might mean lower energy bills. Yet leading energy industry consultants say it’s unlikely that shale gas extracted in the UK will have material impact on prices between now and 2025. Likewise, Deutsche Bank, Chatham House, and OFGEM are all warning that UK shale gas won’t bring down prices. And the International Energy Agency has forecast that natural gas prices will rise by 40% by 2020, even with an influx of cheap shale gas.
Those who are resisting what is happening at Balcombe and elsewhere are sometimes asked whether they would prefer to see wind turbines being built. The comparison is flawed for many reasons. For a start, communities faced with applications for fracking haven’t been given the opportunity to consider whether they might prefer clean energy instead. The planning guidance explicitly states "Mineral planning authorities should not consider demand for, or consider alternatives to, oil and gas resources when determining planning applications.” Yet polling continues to indicate that there is much greater public support for incentivisation of renewable energy technologies than there is for fracking.
The Government should listen, not least because there is a bigger picture here, alongside the genuine and valid concerns of local communities. It has been estimated that between 60 and 80 per cent of existing fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Some of the UK’s leading climate scientists have warned that the widespread use of shale gas is quite simply incompatible with the Government’s international commitments to keep global warming below two degrees.
Planning guidance which makes life easier for mineral extractors, and the prospect of tax breaks for fracking companies, mean the odds are being skewed outrageously against renewable energy.
The Government is being extraordinarily short-sighted, and not just because it might lose votes in its traditional heartlands.