Rumblings of discontent in the debate over fracking
Bronagh McCloskey takes a look at the current political debate on fracking.
The past week the long running debate over fracking for shale gas reserves boiled over in predictable fashion, with news attention focused on anti-fracking demonstrators at a site in Balcombe, West Sussex. There were cameras, there were placards, there were arrests – including that of Caroline Lucas MP.
In some ways, it is a story as old as time. Controversy, local protests and heated tempers are often the bed fellows of large-scale infrastructure projects. However, underneath these extremes, the politics of fracking remains complex. The battle for shale gas is new and largely untested and – unlike with wind farms or incinerators – the political argument has not yet been settled, creating a confusing, fluid situation where opinions are not yet fixed. This summer has seen the public and political debate rage – but to what effect?
On paper, the Conservative leadership are committed to exploring the technology. Chancellor George Osborne is known to be a key champion of shale gas, warning that it would be a ‘real tragedy’ if Britain missed out on the ‘energy revolution’ which is happening in the US. Osborne has backed the industry with tax breaks and encouraging words – fighting its corner in Government against a more sceptical Department for Energy and Climate Change. More recently, David Cameron wrote in the Telegraph setting out his case for continuing with the technology, pointing to the impact both on domestic energy bills and the wider UK economy and rejecting claims that exploration will damage rural areas.
The Prime Minister was clear that the pro-lobby must win the fracking debate. However, are his MPs listening? The debate gets more tricky on the ground. Greenpeace recently published research showing that 38 out of 62 MPs in the south have land with existing oil and gas drilling licenses – and 35 of them are Conservatives, including thirteen cabinet ministers. Today George Hollingbery MP – Theresa May’s PPS and in all other respects a loyal parliamentarian – stirred up concerns about the safety of the process and warned he would be ‘manning the barricades’ should there be any threats to his Hampshire constituency. Rural Conservatives are walking a tight-rope, balancing the party’s energy policy with local concerns – a problem also for those in the path of the proposed HS2 track or who fear revisions to planning regulations.
Much of the media attention of the past week has been focused on the competing views of fracking – with the debate drawn into the wider discussion on climate change, environmental policies and the UK’s future energy mix. However, the Spectator’s Coffee House blog provided perhaps the most useful insight into what the future holds for fracking on the ground. It proposes that success or failure will depend on the opinions of those sitting atop shale gas reserves and how far the Treasury is prepared the sweeten the deal. Writing again in the Telegraph, Isabel Hardman reports the concerns of the Local Government Association that the proposal to allow local authorities to retain just one per cent of the revenue – a figure which Lancashire MP Ben Wallace labelled ‘risible’, warning the Prime Minister that local people ‘need to feel some direct ownership’ of shale gas. Without this reassurance, many fear that the benefits will not be clear enough to persuade people to back the process – and crucially will not swing the votes of local councillors with their hands on any planning applications. With all still to play for, it seems that that further rumblings in constituencies will be the deciding factor in the fracking debate.