The British government has made no secret of its support for fracking.
Last year, it opened up bidding for fracking licenses on nearly half the country’s total land area. Now, as those licenses are starting to be issued, the government has warned local councils that applications must be considered in “swift process.”
But anti-fracking activism in Britain has only grown. One county already rejected a permit application this month, setting up a battle royale between national government interests and local self-determination.
“The government position seems to be incredibly out of touch with public opinion for shale gas,” Ebony Johnson, the founder of Frack Free Lancashire, told ThinkProgress. “There is no support — or very, very little support — for shale gas in the area that I live in.”
Lancashire County is in northern England, just north of Manchester. In June, the council rejected a permit application from Cuadrilla, a company that intends to explore for oil and gas resources in the area.
More than 90,000 people petitioned the council to reject the application, Johnson said. Frack Free Lancashire, Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth all campaigned heavily against the permit.
But Cuadrilla has already announced that it will appeal the permit, likely on the grounds that the council did not properly consider the issues it is allowed to look at.
“The council is only allowed to look at specific aspects with regard to planning: the use of the land, light pollution, air pollution, land use, ecology to a certain extent — whether it is near a site with special scientific interest or natural beauty,” Johnson said. “Waste produced by the site could not be taken into account.”
In other words, the decision cannot be a referendum on whether fracking is safe or necessary. Water contamination — which has been a problem in the United States, Johnson noted — is not an acceptable consideration. Wastewater from fracking — short form for hydraulic fracturing — has been a growing concern in the United States. During the fracking process, large amounts of chemical-laced water are pumped at high pressure into shale rock to loosen oil and gas deposits. The water cannot easily be reused, and is often pumped into underground disposal wells, risking contamination if the wells are not properly lined and raising concerns about earthquakes.
A government spokesperson, who was not authorized to be quoted by name, confirmed that the councils have a narrow area of discretion in the approval process.
“We’re telling councils they should make their decision on planning issues,” the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) spokesman told ThinkProgress. Councils should not, he said, be making decisions about whether the government’s environmental agency is sufficiently engaged on the issue. In any case, there is “no evidence that, when properly, regulated” shale gas development is an environmental hazard, he said.
He disagreed with the characterization that the directive issued earlier this month was in reaction to any particular situation or was out of the ordinary. The directive gives councils 16 weeks to consider permit applications. An announcement by the DECC said applications will be “fast-tracked through a new, dedicated planning process,” but according to the spokesman, there is no change in policy for the councils.
“It’s a statutory time frame, that they are expected to meet for all planning decisions,” he said. “It already exists — it’s not something that we just pulled out of nowhere.”
Fracking has also been tied to earthquakes in Britain. Cuadrilla, the same company that is appealing Lancashire’s decision, admitted that its oil and gas activities caused seismic activity at another site in 2011.
According to Preston Councillor John Swindell’s, Lancashire’s councilmembers had many general objections to fracking in their district, although none of those reasons could be considered. Ultimately, the rejection came down to a simple planning issue: too many trucks on the county’s small roads.
Being unable to consider the greater environmental issues is “absolutely” a problem, Swindells told ThinkProgress. “It’s one of the key issues,” he said. For him, the main concerns are climate change and the water table, neither of which fall under the planning rubric.
The new directive from the DECC just adds another layer to the county councils’ responsibilities. In the case of the Lancashire permit, a process which lasted roughly 12 months, Swindells said the delays were largely due to requests from Cuadrilla to respond to community concerns. It was also natural that it would take longer than average, because it was the first process of its kind, Swindells said. But the directive makes it clear that councils that don’t respond quickly could have the decision taken away entirely.
The question on everyone’s mind now seems to be whether — and for how long — local groups will continue to be able to self-determine. For instance, Cuadrilla’s appeal could go to a national planning board, which might overthrow the local decision.
Going forward, Swindells said, “I think they will make it very difficult to turn [applications] down.”
And it’s clear that the national government is pushing shale development. Its official policy statement says “there is a national need to explore and develop our shale gas and oil resources in a safe, sustainable and timely way.” Great Britain currently imports 45 percent of its gas — an amount that is expected to go up to 75 percent by 2030 without domestic shale development, according to official estimates.
“Shale is something the government supports — and quite strongly supports,” the DECC spokesman told ThinkProgress.
Who, exactly, is behind this support is another question. Anti-fracking advocates have criticized the government for being influenced by oil and gas interests. And more specifically, the conservative (Tory) government has been called out for issuing fracking licenses only in the Labour-controlled north. Last year, the father-in-law of a Conservative minister — and an oil and gas lobbyist — suggested fracking should happen only in the northeast, because it has “large and uninhabited and desolate areas.”
When 27 locations were offered in the first tranche of licenses this week, they were clustered in the north and east of the country, including additional sites in Lancashire and neighboring Yorkshire.
“A lot of ministers have said they will support shale gas but not in their own community,” Frack Free Lancashire’s Johnson told ThinkProgress. She predicted that the new licenses will not result in rubber-stamped permits from the local councils. “There is already massive opposition in Lancashire and Yorkshire.”
Councillor Swindells, though, was not so confident.
“I think it’s almost inevitable,” he said. “If it’s the will of the national government to do that, they will force it through one way or another.”