Ministers are determined to get fracking under way in the UK as fast as possible, so it’s a ‘fait accompli’ in time for the election, writes Alex Stevenson. With a firm pro-fracking concensus in Parliament, only one thing can frustrate their plans – strong local campaigns to turn around MPs desperate for re-election in 2015. It even has a name: democracy.
The biggest threat to ministers’ fracking plans comes from backbenchers representing rural constituencies across England’s green and pleasant land – most of which are Conservative.
It’s a question of fear. What secretly worries pro-fracking Conservative ministers, The Ecologist has learned, is that a Labour administration in power after 2015 might reverse the current coalition’s efforts to make widespread fracking possible across the UK.
So in order to make it as hard as possible for the next government to reverse the plans of this one, the Department for Energy and Climate Change is accelerating efforts to get ‘phase one’ of fracking – as one government source calls the current drive – completed before polling day next May.
And they may succeed: none of the three mainstream parties that hold real clout in Westminster are likely to put up much of a fight any time soon.
Labour: intensely relaxed about shale
Right now an odd sort of rapprochement is taking place in Westminster. After years of glaring at each other suspiciously across the despatch boxes, government and opposition frontbenchers might be close to securing consensus on shale gas.
Labour has been creeping towards accepting fracking for some years now. In 2012 it set out a series of regulatory tests designed to limit localised environmental impact. Then, last month, the opposition tabled amendments to the infrastructure bill detailing these.
“If the government accept our amendments we’ll be in a position where there is much more thorough regulation in place”, said Tom Greatrex MP, Labour’s Shadow Energy Minister. “But there are other issues.”
These include the monitoring of methane gas, which remains the subject of a scientific study. A good excuse for Labour to delay its final endorsement of fracking until next year. In response, ministers are considering further concessions to get Labour firmly onside.
A bit more regulation is regarded by pro-fracking Conservatives as a price worth paying to win a swift political agreement. Even the industry has made it clear that they don’t oppose the bulk of Labour’s proposals.
Fracking firms’ only serious concern with Labour’s proposed regulation is the period of time needed to establish ‘baseline’ chemical levels in groundwater before drilling begins. The opposition is calling for a 12-month timeframe, but the United Kingdom Onshore Oil And Gas (UKOOG) thinks three months is plenty.
“This is a very regulated industry already”, said a spokesman. “Whatever government is in place, the industry will be committed to proper regulation and to full consultation with local communities that are affected.”
Nixing the NIMBYs
Oddly, the biggest threat to ministers’ fracking plans comes from backbenchers representing rural constituencies across England’s green and pleasant land – most of which are Conservative. These are the Middle Englanders – the ones who oppose fracking on the time-honoured tradition of ‘not in my back yard’.
Nick Herbert, a former government minister, is among them. Herbert supports fracking nationally, but rejected a proposal for explanatory drilling in his South Downs constituency earlier this year because it involved heavy lorry movements through a pretty local village.
“It’s difficult to judge when the costs of renewable energy might fall”, he says. “What the government must do is reassure those who have concerns about the environmental impact.” He also sees an economic benefit in developing domestic gas sources, since “shale gas could substitute for gas from other countries.”
Herbert, and the NIMBYs in his constituency, are always going to be a problem for the Government. But ministers have a ‘carrot and stick’ plan to reduce the number of times their campaigning actually stops drilling taking place.
Community engagement plans are being developed to combat their concerns. And landowners’ and homeowners’ rights to obstruct fracking under their property are being addressed in the Infrastructure Bill – which will allow energy firms to drill without the owner’s permission.