Following dramatic developments on Friday, there is now just an interim injunction standing between oil and gas company Cuadrilla and the first onshore fracking of a horizontal shale well in the UK at its Lancashire site.
Fracking is a blow for the residents of Blackpool and their neighbours in Preston, who are deeply concerned about the risk it poses to the health of the community, and the impact on the environment. Defenders of the industry may argue that fracking is necessary for the UK’s energy security – but this is a red herring. According to Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials, the UK already benefits from highly diverse and flexible sources of gas supply, with imports piped in from Norway and Belgium and shipped in from Qatar, and that is on top of existing domestic production. Indeed, environmental groups have expressed concerns that a portion of fracked gas would not be used for energy at all, but diverted for the production of plastic, undermining the government’s crusade against single-use plastic.
Fracking is a travesty for local democracy, bad news for the environment and our climate, and concerning for public health too. It is the result of the Conservative government’s weakening of planning protections and their pursuit of fracking at any cost.
First up: local democracy. In June 2015, Lancashire County Council rejected Cuadrilla’s application to drill, voting nine to five against. The decision was greeted with jubilation by residents, who had campaigned hard against drilling.
But their joy was short lived: the following year, the then communities secretary, Sajid Javid, overturned the decision, setting a dangerous precedent by effectively bulldozing local decision making. In July this year it was energy minister Claire Perry, not local decision makers, who gave the final go-ahead to drill.
Second: climate change. There is a bitter irony that the leading international body of climate scientists, the IPCC, has published a report setting out the huge task we face to avoid dangerous climate change. Fracking flies in the face of this evidence.
Claire Perry likes to refer to shale gas as “low carbon”, but this is simply wrong. Gas, which is a carbon based fuel, can only be described as a low carbon option if it replaces coal in the energy mix. But coal is already on its way out of the UK’s energy mix before fracking has even started – accounting for only 7.8 per cent of electricity in 2017. If shale gas were to come online now, it would be displacing genuinely low carbon energy, not coal.
For the record, gas is about 40 times more carbon intense than offshore wind, and this is without taking into account the uncertainties around the emissions intensity of fracked gas.
Third: local environmental quality. A government report from 2015 concluded that fracking increases air pollution, with substantially higher impacts at the local level where activities are clustered. In a display of astonishing cynicism, the government withheld publication of the report for three years until after they had approved Cuadrilla’s permit, slipping out the publication on the final day of parliament. This is particularly concerning as the UK already has illegal levels of nitrous oxides in many areas – a pollutant harmful to public health.
"Beyond air quality, researchers have expressed concerns about how large quantities of waste water will be disposed of, given the UK’s lack of waste treatment facilities. Worryingly, one fracking company has plans to discharge waste water into the sea. There are also legitimate concerns around seismic activity following tremors felt near Blackpool in 2011. Almost incredibly, the government's proposed response appears to be to relax rules around earthquakes
Of course, all of the above is nothing new. It is why fracking bans or moratoria have been introduced around the world from France to Germany, from Quebec to New York State. The latest country to propose a ban is Mexico, led by socialist president-elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Given that the UK has almost five times the population density of Mexico, and 50 per cent higher carbon dioxide emissions per capita, you would expect the UK to take greater care over planning decisions and environmental regulations. But the opposite is true.
Rather, the UK government has introduced a fast-tracked planning regime for fracking that, according to environmental campaigners, would make exploratory drilling as easy as building a garden wall or conservatory. This lax approach to planning is highly inappropriate for drilling sites close to major population centres of Preston and Blackpool, and within 30 miles of Manchester and Liverpool.
Energy security will be front and centre of a future Labour government, as will supporting the creation of a thriving energy industry with good, long-term jobs in the northwest and across the UK. That is why Labour commits to projects such as tidal lagoons and onshore wind farms to create more opportunities for manufacturing in a green jobs revolution of the future. Beyond that, Labour will reform our energy system in a way that is not just about economic opportunities, but also about ensuring fairness, and I look forward to setting out these plans in the coming months.
Fracking is simply not consistent with a clean energy future. To present the choice as one between responsible environmental decision making on the one hand, and energy security and economic opportunity on the other, is a false dichotomy.
A Labour government would deliver both; this Tory government will deliver neither.
Rebecca Long-Bailey is Labour MP for Salford and Eccles. She has been shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy since 2017
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