Lancashire: a local demonstration against fracking - 'Nanas to the front. Advance!' Photo: Victoria Buchan-Dyer via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Fracking trumps climate change, pollution, health - and democracy
Tony Bosworth / FoE
13th October 2016
Last week the EU ratified the Paris Agreement to limit climate change, writes Tony Bosworth. So how did Communities Secretary Sajid Javid mark the occasion? By overturning Lancashire's democratic rejection of fracking, so giving a whole new fossil fuel industry the green light to let rip. Hypocrisy? The word hardly does justice to our government's mendacity.
It's not just Lancashire. Wherever fracking is proposed, it is facing strong community opposition. That opposition isn't going away. If anything, the resolve of people to fight fracking has been strengthened.
On her first day as Prime Minister, Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street and said: "When we take the big calls, we'll think not of the powerful, but you."
But the Government broke that promise last week.
Lancashire has clearly said 'no' to fracking. It has been opposed by parish councils, district councils - and finally, Lancashire County Councillors, who concluded that it would cause unacceptable local impacts.
Fully 98% of the Lancashire residents who responded to Cuadrilla's planning application were against it going ahead. But on Thursday, the Government overruled the people and their democratically-elected representatives.
This is starkly different to applications for wind turbines where a handful of local objections almost always results in planning permission being refused.
Unsurprisingly, the Government's overturning of this locally-made decision didn't go down well with local council leaders. The Local Government Association commented that "It should be up to local communities to decide, through their locally democratic planning systems, whether or not to host fracking operations in their areas."
Is this a sign of trouble ahead?
Hypocrisy on climate change
Last Wednesday, the Paris Climate Change agreement was ratified by the EU. This agreement commits world leaders to keep world temperatures below 1.5C of global warming - which means that the majority of known fossil fuels must stay in the ground. How did the UK mark this hugely significant event? By giving the green light to fracking. Depressing isn't the word.
The day of the Lancashire decision was full of inaccurate claims from the industry and its supporters. But the prize for the most ridiculous statement must go to Sajid Javid himself. The Secretary of State believes that shale gas could help to meet the Government's climate target and that fracking represents "a positive contribution towards the reduction of carbon".
In what Alice-in-Wonderland world is saying yes to a new source of fossil fuels a positive contribution towards tackling climate change?
Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester, said: "Let's be absolutely clear. The development of a UK shale gas industry is incompatible with the UK Government's climate change obligations as enshrined in the Paris Agreement.
"No amount of eloquent political spin, legal obfuscation or pseudo-scientific camouflage can reconcile the Government's clamour for shale gas with the carbon budgets underpinning the Paris 2°C and 1.5°C commitments. Instead of clinging to the last vestiges of a fossil fuel industry, we need a genuine low carbon transformation, and fast."
The Secretary of State also said that the Paris Climate Agreement should not be counted in this decision - but we will never deal with climate change if it is always left to another decision, taken somewhere else, by someone else.
Health concerns ignored
The Secretary of State also failed to adequately deal with the health risks of fracking. Emerging evidence shows that fracking does pose risks to public health. Analysis of health data from Pennsylvania shows that living in the areas with the most shale gas drilling is associated with a 40% increase in the risk of a woman having a premature birth. Also asthma sufferers are up to four times more likely to have an attack if they live in these areas.
Despite this, the Government said "there would be no health impacts arising from potential exposure to air and water pollutants". This cannot be assumed to be the case for production level activities.
Compare this to the conclusion of the New York State public health inquiry, which found fracking could pose "significant" risks to public health. It's almost as if the damage has to be done and proven in communities in this country before it will matter to the Government.
Questionable faith in regulation
One of the problems with the English planning system is that it has to assume that all the other regulatory systems are up to scratch and that the regulators are doing their jobs properly.
In the planning inquiry, Friends of the Earth pointed out that Cuadrilla had got their figures wrong on how much waste water would be generated. The figure given to the Environment Agency was four times that given to Lancashire County Council.
Yet this critical point was summarily dismissed by the inquiry inspector and the Government on the grounds that it was up to Cuadrilla to deal with the waste water.
This is a risky approach. What happens if there is no capacity to deal with the waste water? What if there is more waste water than anticipated? Will that mean more trucks, more transport, more storage, and more waste water capacity required? Apparently we shouldn't worry about all that, because Cuadrilla will be taking care of it.
Sajid Javid didn't take a final decision about fracking at the other site in Lancashire, Roseacre Wood. There were still outstanding highways issues, he said, and he wanted Cuadrilla to sort them out. If they did, he was minded to allow fracking there too. How much more time do they need? Cuadrilla have had two and a half years to sort out these issues. When do we say 'enough is enough'?
It's like a football referee telling a team taking a penalty: "don't worry if you miss first time - I'll allow you to carry on taking it until you score." That approach might help the England team, but it's terrible for the country.
It's also very unfair on the people defending their communities - they have already put forward experts and information in the inquiry and now they have to spend more time and money defending themselves.
Our government is increasingly out on a limb
Last week's decision confirmed that Theresa May is continuing her predecessor's support for fracking. But her Government is looking increasingly isolated. France, Holland, Bulgaria, Scotland and Wales all have bans or moratoriums on fracking, motivated by concerns about risks to the environment and health. England is the industry's last big hope in Europe.
The Cuadrilla decision wasn't the only significant move last week on unconventional gas. The Scottish government also banned underground coal gasification (UCG), which involves setting alight to coal seams and collecting the gas this produces. The rationale behind the decision was that UCG posed 'numerous and serious' risks for the environment and the climate.
If only Sajid Javid had stood up to the industry, listened to the people not the powerful, and adopted the same sensible approach!
But if the shale gas industry think they are now home and dry, then they couldn't be more wrong. What Cuadrilla got last week was the Government's permission to frack in Lancashire. What they have not got, and never will get, is the permission of the people of Lancashire to frack in their county.
And, of course, it's not just Lancashire. Wherever fracking is proposed, it is facing strong community opposition. That opposition isn't going away. If anything, the resolve of people to fight fracking has been strengthened.
And if the Government is going to overturn local decisions and raise concerns about democracy, then it might well have just made the fracking industry's job even harder.
Tony Bosworth is energy campaigner with Friends of the Earth.
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