Why the government is resorting to increasingly desperate measures on fracking

People are right to still be concerned about fracking.

By Friends of the Earth senior campaigner Jane Thomas

The recent announcement that councils will be able to keep all business rate revenue from shale gas and oil extraction in their area is an indication of the desperate measures the government is having to resort to in order to sell fracking to a sceptical public.

People are right to be concerned about the controversial process of fracking and its impact on their communities. energy secretary Ed Davey has said “we can’t expect UK shale production alone to have any effect [on gas prices]”. Leading climate change economist Lord Stern has also described claims that fracking will cut gas prices as “baseless economics”.

The truth of the matter is that fracking is not the solution to our energy problems. Shale gas is a dirty fossil fuel that contributes to climate change and poses serious local environmental risks such as water contamination.

More importantly, it risks taking much-needed investment away from renewables and energy saving measures. Indeed, if the government was really serious about helping cash-strapped councils they would invest in a comprehensive energy efficiency programme and develop the UK’s huge renewables power potential.

With this latest announcement, questions have been raised about conflicts of interest where councils will benefit financially from granting planning permissions for fracking operations. Not least by councils themselves – several have spoken out and said that fracking incentive money would not and should not be used by local authorities.

West Sussex County Council, that includes the flashpoint site of Balcombe, has stressed:

“It is very important that local authorities like West Sussex maintain the independence and integrity of the planning application process, and any funding in relation to fracking should and would not be a consideration.”

Nor will there be any fracking in Cheshire East if council leader Michael Jones has his way – which embarrassingly includes large parts of chancellor George Osborne’s Tatton constituency.

To further sweeten the pill, Cameron’s council incentives announcement was timed with French energy giant Total confirming its plans to invest in UK fracking sites. The company has taken a 40 per cent share in two gas exploration licences for drilling in the Gainsborough Trough, in an area between Doncaster and Lincoln.

This no doubt was planned to shore up the government’s narrative that fracking is big business for the UK.  However, the irony of a French-owned company Total seeking to drill the UK for shale gas, when it has been banned in France due to environmental concerns, has not been lost on campaigners in areas at risk of fracking.

Further, Total follow in the footsteps of GDF Suez, which like Total is partially French-owned and now looking for a more acquiescent market. According to the lawyers who led on the deal for GDF Suez:

“GDF has been looking to acquire an interest in upstream gas for a while, and they’ve looked at a number of opportunities across Europe….They considered the UK regulatory and tax regime to be less challenging than some others.”

This puts questions over the strength of UK regulation firmly in focus. David Cameron recently said in Gainsborough that:

“we have the strongest environmental controls in this country, nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. I think people can be reassured by that”.

Yet on the same day, hidden amongst the announcement on council financial sweeteners and French investment, watered down planning regulation for oil and gas came into force.

Previously, when developers wanted to submit an application to frack they had to notify everyone in the site area prior to sending it off to the planning authority. Now, these rules only apply to people who own the land directly under the site of the well – not the whole area of land under which deep drilling takes place.

So communities will no longer be formally notified that deep drilling is planned to take place beneath them before an application is submitted. Alongside this is a fresh assault on planning laws that could give developers powers to push ahead without council approval and environmental assessments.

The coalition appear increasingly desperate to push through measures that are increasingly unpalatable to the public – and have huge environmental impacts for us and future generations. In response Ed Miliband and Labour have been leading from the front on the push to decarbonise our energy sector – although we wait to see the details of how this will be delivered.

The party could perhaps take its lead from cllr Jack Scott, cabinet member for the environment in Sheffield, who said after Cameron’s announcement:

“The government needs to remember that climate change is the greatest threat we face as a society – you only need to look at recent weather and flood events for proof of this. So the government must get its priorities right. Wherever it comes from, gas is a dirty fossil fuel that releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide. As a country, we need to invest massively in renewable energy and technology innovation to overcome the energy needs, not a reckless dash for gas.”

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