Geoffrey Lean is Britain’s longest-serving environmental correspondent, having pioneered reporting on the subject almost 40 years ago.
By Geoffrey Lean Politics Last updated: October 11th, 2013
The protesters are winning the battle against fracking
Protesters seem to have won the first round in the fight over fracking, set to be one of the most controversial issues of the next decade. In the last few weeks, Cuadrilla – the company spearheading the drive to exploit shale gas and oil in Britain – has had to withdraw from two key sites. A loophole in the law could make it hard to exploit new ones. And a new poll shows public support for the technique shrinking for the first time.
The company’s drilling for oil on the outskirts of the village of Balcombe in West Sussex have been severely set back by a summer of protests and legal challenges, even though it has insisted that it has no current plans to frack and is merely trying to assess the site’s potential. Weeks of demonstrations – and, much more importantly, a delay caused by the need to get an extra permit following a challenge by the Friends of the Earth to the Environment Agency – stopped it completing the job before its existing planning permission ran out late last month. So it has had to stop work and to go back to the county council for consent to continue – and, though that is likely to be granted, it is not expected to come through until well into next year.
Then, earlier this week the company announced it was abandoning one of its key sites in the North west altogether. It ceased operations at Anna’s Road, in St Annes, Lancashire, announcing that it would not seek to frack there and would instead restore the site to its original condition. The reason it gave for its change of heart was concern over the effects on geese and whooper swans overwintering in the Ribble Estuary, but it also happens that – as at Balcombe -the site was uncomfortably close to housing, aggravating local protests.
Cuadrilla added that it was applying for permission to drill at up to six new sites in nearby Fylde – also, incidentally, rich in birds. But these and other applications now face another danger thanks to a loophole in planning law, which requires them to get permission from those who own land above the horizontal wells used for fracking. This opens up the possibility both that existing property owners will block the drilling and that protesters might deliberately buy up strips of land above planned wells to stop them going ahead. Resolving the issue, say lawyers, could take years.
Just to make things worse, polling at the University of Nottingham showed that public backing for extracting shale gas, which had been increasing steadily for more than a year, fell back for the first time – from 61 per cent in July to 55 per cent in September. The period covers the Balcombe protests, suggesting that the demonstrations, and the accompanying publicity, succeeded in shifting opinion.
What is more, there is no sign of any softening in the Sussex villagers’ opposition. On Wednesday, at the invitation of the local parish council, I chaired a meeting in the church (chosen as the biggest building in the village) for them to meet, and hear from, the Environment Agency, which regulates pollution from drilling operations. Only people with local postcodes were allowed in, so as to keep outside protesters away, but the church was still full to overflowing with some 300 people: others had to be turned away.
There were more than 30 questions and comments from the floor. Not one supported the drilling, and almost all were extremely hostile. Clearly, the politicians and shale gas supporters who sought to dismiss opposition to the Balcombe drilling as largely arising from professional protesters and environmentalists coming in from outside are way off beam. Until the government and companies realise this and engage with local concerns opposition is bound to increase and more sites will end up being abandoned.