At a shale gas conference in London yesterday, the chief executive of a fracking company acknowledged that he and his rivals still have to earn the “social licence” to operate in Britain. Separately, a senior official at the Department of Energy and Climate Change noted that everything is in place except for public support. Given that the venue of the meeting had been hastily changed to avoid a run-in with protesters – not least Vivienne Westwood – the insight is hardly perspicacious. But it is welcome nonetheless.
Hydraulic fracturing has been controversial since the start. Critics warn that the technique can cause earthquakes, contamination and air pollution. Green campaigners also worry about the energy intensiveness of the process and the fossil fuels that are the result. Two seismic tremors linked to early exploration in 2011 hardly allayed fears. By the time that explorations got under way in West Sussex last summer, concerns had hardened into a full-scale protest movement, an operation now being repeated at another potential fracking site in Greater Manchester.
Yet there remains a strong case to be made in favour of investigating Britain’s shale gas reserves. Such is our growing appetite for power, we simply cannot build renewable infrastructure fast enough or cheaply enough to satisfy it. Electricity prices are already painfully high and likely to keep on rising. There is also the uncertainty over dwindling North Sea reserves and the risks of reliance on foreign supplies – as the current crisis in Crimea only emphasises – to consider. Against such a background it would be the height of irresponsibility not to explore all our options.
Economic arguments are only part of what is needed, though. Misgivings about safety and contamination cannot simply be ignored. If fracking is now proven to be safe and clean then it is incumbent upon Government and industry to set out the evidence and to ensure it reaches those with concerns. Had such details been provided earlier, the increasingly politicised anti-fracking movement might not have become established. We can only hope, now the penny has finally dropped, that it is not too late to avoid widespread disruption.