Is it time to face up to fracking?

It could soon be full steam ahead for fracking. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman has confirmed that ways of making test-drilling easier are being considered and, earlier this month, the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said it strongly supports the Government’s decision ‘to go all out for shale’.

Noting that the USA is much further ahead in the development of shale gas and oil, bringing huge economic benefits, chairman Lord MacGregor says: ‘Developing a successful shale-gas and oil industry must be an urgent national priority.’ David Cameron is a staunch supporter of fracking-hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks and boreholes to extract oil or gas-and it’s been widely reported that he wants to use the Queen’s Speech on June 4 to announce an Infrastructure Bill that will give companies the right to drill horizontally, up to 2,000ft below people’s property, without their permission.

The shale-gas industry has continually argued that the existing system of gaining access for subsurface activity is a barrier to investment. CLA president Henry Robinson comments: ‘Although we recognise that shale-gas exploration is in the nation’s economic interest, we do not wish to see landownership rights undermined. Landowners must be provided with information on what happens under their land. They also need protection from any long-term liability associated with shale-gas operations and fair recompense for access.’

The National Trust, which makes no secret of its presumption against fracking-‘If it were proposed today on our land, we would say no’-is also concerned about property rights, as well as safeguarding ‘natural and historic treasures’. ‘We would need to understand what powers we might have to actually stop fracking under our land,’ explains the Trust’s James Lloyd. ‘Protection of people’s land by the law is a cornerstone of our legal system. It’s crucial that people can make representations through the institutions best equipped to explore potentially complex evidence and to reach robust, fair decisions not tainted by prevailing politics- namely the courts.’

Others, such as the CLA, believe there’s no need to alter trespass laws, as the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) Act 1966 already deals with this. ‘This problem’s not been unusual in mining and mineral extraction for years,’ Mr Robinson explains. ‘If a landowner wishes to withhold permission for a developer to access his land, the developer goes to court to apply for access in return for a level of consideration the court thinks is appropriate. We have a perfectly good system in place-we just need to speed up the legal process.’

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Like many countryside organisations, including the CLA, the CPRE is not fundamentally opposed to fracking, it just wants to see it done carefully. ‘It’s depressing that all the political focus is on generating energy rather than saving it, but we also need new sources of energy,’ admits chief executive Shaun Spiers.

‘If shale gas can aid a transition to zero- or low carbon fuels, and if it can be extracted without destroying the countryside or polluting water supplies, it could be an important part of our energy mix. However, it’s dominated by extremists on both sides.’ Mr Spiers adds that there are many unanswered questions. ‘Ministers will be making a mistake if they try to force fracking on communities; they should consider objections and persuade, rather than bludgeon, the doubters.’

For John Constable, director of the Renewable Energy Foundation and a stern critic of Government energy policy, clear rules are key. ‘Simple, enforceable and enforced regulation should be enough to keep this promising new source of energy on the right side of public opinion,’ he comments. ‘However, if Ministers panic and give developers special protection, they will rapidly turn into spoilt, misbehaving government pets, just like the onshore wind industry.’

Public mistrust of fracking centres on fears it can cause earth tremors (as it has in the USA) and that waste water may damage rivers. As Mark Lloyd from the Angling Trust puts it: ‘The Environment Agency is struggling to tackle existing problems. Our wildlife and fisheries need another major risk to water quality like they need a hole in the head.’ Although the NFU welcomes fracking’s potential to provide ‘significant access payments’ to farmers, it’s uncertain how it will affect agriculture.

‘We remain concerned that the Government has not identified a need to monitor the impact on agriculture and that long-term responsibilities [for compensation, restoration and aftercare of sites] may be reassigned, possibly defaulting to the landowner,’ states Jonathan Scurlock. The question of clearing up is one of the RSPB‘s main misgivings. ‘At the moment, the developer isn’t liable to pay the full cost of a clean-up,’ says Nik Shelton. ‘Fracking is being hailed as a cheap source of energy, but that doesn’t reflect the cost to the environment.’

As well as asking for exclusion zones to protect sensitive areas, the RSPB is urging the Government to slow down and ensure robust guidelines are in place before giving fracking the green light. ‘One of the reasons we’re saying put the brakes on is because fracking hasn’t been tested in our landscape-there’s not a massive amount of experience out there. The potential impacts on chalkstreams, for instance, might be irreversible,’ warns Mr Shelton. ‘Let’s do it properly, not rush into it.’

The first fracking application for three years will be submitted in the near future. Energy company Cuadrilla is applying to Lancashire County Council to drill up to four exploration wells near Blackpool.

10 recommendations for safer fracking

1. Avoid sensitive areas for wildlife and water resources by creating exclusion zones
2. Make Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) mandatory
3. Require shale-extraction companies to pay for a world-class regulatory regime
4. Prevent taxpayers from bearing the costs of accidental pollution
5. Make water companies statutory consultees in the planning process
6. Require all fracking operations to operate under a Groundwater Permit
7. Make sure the Best Available Techniques for mine-waste management are rigorously defined
8. Ensure full transparency of the industry and its environmental impact
9. Ensure monitoring and testing of operations is rigorous and independent
10. Minimise and monitor methane emissions Source: ‘Are we fit to frack?’ (March 2014), produced by the RSPB, National Trust, Salmon & Trout Association, Angling Trust, The Wildlife Trusts and WWT

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