• Shale Gas Task Force calls for fracking to get started in the UK
  • Environment groups question this pointing to Paris climate deal
  • Councils left in the middle of local and national goals
  • Public support for fracking is waning

As the Shale Gas Task Force releases its fourth and final document on fracking, Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy, writes that the Government’s eagerness to hurry-up shale gas development in the UK might prove counterproductive.

Back in August the media reported that the Government was ‘fast-tracking’ shale gas decisions, although it actually insisted those decisions by local councils be taken within the current 16-week statutory timeframe.

That  change in policy comes just a few months after Lancashire County Council refused two planning applications by Cuadrilla to drill exploratory wells at Preston New Road and at Roseacre Wood, one against the advice of the County’s planning officers, though Cuadrilla says it will appeal.

The planning guidelines suggest that decisions should take no more than 16 weeks, but it took Lancashire County Council just over a year. However, there were mitigating circumstances and some of the delay was at the request of Cuadrilla.

The huge amount of evidence the plans generated required time to digest. At least 14 other organisations were required to comment on the applications and thousands of letters were received, though the majority were generated on the websites of environmental groups. Lancashire Country Council was making decisions of national significance, but its deliberations cannot be the basis for future planning decision-making.

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd has promised to deliver shale gas development, which she believes will improve the UK’s future gas security as our North Sea production declines, create a significant amount of jobs and also contribute to the decarbonisation of the country’s energy mix.

Anti-democratic claims

All of these claims are refuted by environmental groups who see shale gas as part of the problem of fossil fuel dependence; and who stress the potential negative environmental impacts of drilling and hydraulic fracturing - fracking.

The recent climate deal in Paris has been flagged as another reason for the UK to avoid fracking, with environmental groups pushing for clean energy instead.

They also see any attempt to reinforce the role of central Government in the planning process as anti-democratic. That remains to be seen as the County Council, as the Minerals Planning Authority, must grant planning permission for any drilling activity.


Pointing the way: Prime Minister David Cameron on a visit to a shale gas site in Gainsborough run by iGas
                                                                                                                                                                Image: The Prime Minister's Office


The Government has toned down the rhetoric and now acknowledges that shale gas development is at the very earliest stage and only a programme of exploratory drilling can provide an assessment of its potential. At the same time, careful monitoring of that drilling is needed to assess the environmental impact of shale gas development under UK regulation.

National v local

The fundamental challenge is that benefits such as improved energy security through reduced import dependence and the associated improvements in the balance of payments are national goals, while the potential negative environmental impacts are felt locally. 

Fracking protestors
Social  licence?: Protestors and environmental groups opposing fracking gather outside the Houses of Parliament
                                                                                                                                                                                Image: The Weekly Bull


The Government and industry have agreed to make community payments and they also stress the benefits of new investment and job creation. However, those members of the public who spoke at the Lancashire planning hearings were far from convinced that the potential economic benefits outweigh what they perceive as the negative environmental and economic costs.

The Government’s own opinion poll shows that public support for shale gas is dwindling. Commenting on the results of their latest Public Attitudes Tracker DECC noted: “The shift towards more opposition has happened gradually over the last 18 months, with support currently at its lowest level since the survey began.”

Their latest poll shows that 21 per cent support shale gas development, 28 per cent oppose it and the remaining 51 per cent don’t oppose it or support it or don’t know. A year ago, 24 per cent opposed it and 24 per cent supported it. Furthermore other polls show quite clearly any ambivalence disappears with the prospect of shale gas drilling near people’s area.

A YouGov opinion poll published in The Sunday Times showed that 43 per cent opposed shale gas development generally and 49 per cent opposed it in a town or village near them.


Vivienne Westwood protesting against fracking
Making a stand: Designer Vivienne Westwood, here giving her views to a journalist, has joined the anti-fracking protest movement
                                                                                                                                                                                Image: The Weekly Bull



It means County Councils are likely to find themselves in an impossible situation of being pressured by central Government to make quicker decisions, while being subject to increasing pressure from environmental groups and concerned locals to reject shale gas planning applications.

The Government maintains that the current situation is in nobody’s interest, but what is needed is the right decision and in the early stages of development that may not be the quickest decision. As far as the shale gas debate in the UK is concerned we are now in a Catch-22, only an exploratory drilling programme can answer the questions that remain about the scale of the commercial opportunity, its environmental impacts and the effectiveness of the regulatory regime to mitigate those risks; however, planners seem reluctant to grant planning permission because of the lack of a UK evidence base in terms of environmental impacts and their mitigation.

In the ongoing highly polarized debate there is a need to press the reset button to gain a consensus for a programme of exploratory drilling to provide the evidence that is needed to make an informed decision. Simply telling everyone to hurry up may prove counterproductive in seeking a ‘social licence to frack.’ 

Read Professor Bradshaw's reports for UKERC on the future of gas in the UK here

Professor Michael Bradshaw teaches Business, Policy & Regulation in the GEI, Energy in Global Politics and Strategic Advantage on the Global Energy MBA.