THE BLOG

Britain's Fracking Fight Is a Test of Our Democracy

09/02/2015 13:14 GMT | Updated 10/04/2015 10:59 BST

Fracking, the practice of firing high-pressure jets of toxic chemicals into the earth to release shale gas, is not popular in Britain. Less than a quarter of the population supports the idea, and even fewer would back fracking in their local area. But the government wants to open the country up for drilling and together with the fossil fuel industry, is determined to get its way.

To oil the wheels of the fracking bandwagon, ministers have resorted to various schemes. They've offered tax breaks to cash-strapped councils in return for approving projects, buried changes to land rights in obscure legislation, created legal requirements to dig up fossil fuels, and dismissed concerns over everything from health to house-prices as the ramblings of cranks and nimbys. Taken together, it resembles less an energy policy and more an all-out assault on the will of the people.

Last month, MPs approved the Infrastructure Bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that covers everything from road building to tackling invasive plant species. Buried in its depths are hastily drafted provisions that enshrine in law the right of fracking companies to drill under private property against the will of the owner, despite a consultation finding 99% of the public opposed the change.

The bill also legislates for "maximising economic recovery of UK petroleum" - in other words, making it a legal requirement to exploit the country's fossil fuel resources, regardless of widespread public support for policies to effect deep cuts in carbon emissions to avoid dangerous climate change. The government, basically, wants to make it illegal not to frack.

It's inconceivable that these provisions could have been approved in stand-alone legislation. That's why there is no Shale Gas Recovery Bill. Instead they've been shoehorned into the Infrastructure Bill, deliberately designed to be too big to fail. MPs don't want to be responsible for killing off this behemoth bill: its size has safeguarded it against defeat.

Despite this, the frackers aren't having it all their own way. The publication of an influential report in to the environmental risks of fracking saw 11th hour amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, although in truth they were more damage limitation than disaster prevention. Thanks to these changes, fracking will not be allowed in national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty, or close to important groundwater reserves.

But the real fracking battles are being fought far from Westminster's corridors of power. Two days after the Infrastructure Bill passed, the Scottish government used its executive powers to impose a moratorium on all fracking projects until the public had been consulted. The same day Lancashire County Council delayed a planning decision on the first two commercial fracking sites in the country after coming under intense pressure from Cuadrilla, the company behind the projects. The council had been on the cusp of rejecting the application, and only a flurry of last minute lobbying from the fracking lobby bought a stay of execution.

Cuadrilla has pumped thousands of pounds into the area to win local hearts and minds, splashing cash on everything from the local rugby team to prize money for competitions. While the approach has persuaded some, much of the community remains sceptical. In the days before the decision, the council received hundreds of messages from local people calling on them to reject Cuadrilla's advances. There's now at least an eight-week wait before they will make a final decision.

This is a game of high stakes. If Lancashire approves the projects, the floodgates will open and applications will be submitted across the country. If they are rejected, the government's plans to turn Britain into a fracking superstate will suffer a significant blow. To avoid this, ministers have done all they can to prod councils like Lancashire into compliance, offering to drop taxes for councils if they 'get on board' and approve fracking projects. If they don't, ministers can reverse the decision anyway.

There are plenty problems with fracking. The US experience shows the environmental risks are real. The health implications are serious enough to have persuaded New York to ban the practice altogether. And it doesn't take a genius to see that further investment in fossil fuel extraction is wildly irresponsible given the global climate crisis.

But there is something else at stake here too: our democracy. If the government cannot win a robust public debate on fracking, and secure clear support from the communities being asked to host drilling, it should not proceed with its plans.

The toxic politics of fracking in Britain beg important questions: are our leaders serving the interests of the people, or their wealthy friends in the fracking industry? Whatever the answer, one thing is clear: the government's wilful disregard of legitimate public concerns over fracking is a shameful attempt to impose a future on this country that three-quarters of us do not want. Fracking, it seems, can poison democracy as well as the environment.