The battle lines are drawn. Upward of 30 tents have sprung up in a small village in West Sussex as demonstrators converge to campaign against fracking. Cuadrilla, a company keen to establish whether there is shale gas in the area, is going ahead with its exploratory drilling anyway. But the protesters – a combination of local residents and hardcore activists from across the country – are not backing down either. Sad to say, Balcombe is set to be just the first of many such stand-offs. Sadder still, it did not have to be this way.
Fracking has long been controversial. Fluid is pumped into the ground at high pressure, breaking the rock and freeing the gas trapped within it. Critics warn of earthquakes, ground water contamination and air pollution. There are even tales, from the US, of domestic taps aflame.
The technique certainly had teething problems. Nor did it help that, here in Britain, early exploration near Blackpool was linked to two seismic tremors. But the evidence of potentially vast deposits of gas beneath our feet cannot be ignored. Energy is one of the most pressing issues we face. Electricity prices spiral ever higher, as North Sea resources dwindle and climate change policies bear down. We are also increasingly exposed to the insecurity of buying from abroad. A new home-grown supply of clean(ish) gas would change the game, and entirely for the better.
Rhetorical flourishes aside, the Chancellor was not far wrong, then, when he described shale gas as “the future”. He is right to have tweaked the tax system to encourage exploration. The suggestion of possible sweeteners for local residents, perhaps in the form of lower energy bills, is also no bad thing. Given the well-known – if ill-informed – concerns about fracking, however, not to mention Britain’s long tradition of local opposition to new developments, such titbits were never going to be enough. Yet neither the Government nor the industry has done much to get the public on side.
There are risks to fracking. But the technology has matured and careful regulation can do much to ameliorate the hazards evident from early experiences in the US. This should have been carefully and clearly explained. Similarly, although Lord Howell was – fairly – ridiculed for suggesting that exploration be confined to the “desolate” north, there was a nub of sense behind his crass phrasing. It would have been sensible to establish a first shale well in a remote location, or one where there is local support. Such a facility could then be used as an exemplar to persuade the reluctant, sceptical or outright fearful elsewhere.
Instead, there are battle lines in Balcombe, fracking is turning into a hotly politicised issue, and the concerned, the Nimby and the die-hard activist are being pushed into unhelpful alliance. Shale gas has the potential to be a great boon for Britain. It would be a tragedy if the opportunity were wasted.