The Blog

Fracking: As Knowledge Has Spread Opposition Has Grown

We've learnt a lot since the prospect of fracking for shale gas first reared its head in the UK. One thing hasn't changed though - fracking remains incompatible with building the kind of green energy future we need to avert the very worst climate change.

Knowledge of what hydraulic fracturing is, its costs and drawbacks, and its place in the spectrum of extreme energy, have grown a lot since the issue first came on to the UK agenda in 2010. As the latest group of protesters against fracking from Balcombe, including Green MP Caroline Lucas go on trial, and protests grow against the nature of policing of the continuing protests at Barton Moss, now's a good time to assess how far the debate has come.

Communities fighting back against fracking are well versed in the localised risks, but they also appreciate the opportunities afforded by alternatives in renewables (particularly those that they can own themselves) and energy conservation, promoted by campaigns like the Energy Bill Revolution.

For some of our increased knowledge we can thank our Tory-Lib Dem government. As knowledge of fracking has spread, opposition has grown, and the government has become increasingly, obviously, frantic to find ways to turn the tide.

David Cameron has been flinging "bribes" around like confetti - cash for local councils that allow fracking, offers of £100,000 cash for local communities plus 1% of revenues. And a fracking supporter at the Spectator breakfast on the issue at which I spoke last week went further, suggesting communities might need to get 25% of the revenues.

That's as if any of this makes up for the fact that the planning laws are being changed to make it easier for drilling to go ahead and much more difficult for local people to have their say. Or makes up for the devastating impact of extreme weather events, such as the floods we have seen this winter, which scientists agree will be far more likely - as well as probably far more severe and frequent - as the earth's atmosphere warms up.

All of this has only caused increasing caution and concern - if bribes have to be offered, then clearly there's plenty to be concerned about. We all remember the childhood offer that if we were good and took our medicine we'd get a sweet - and know that there was a real cost of an awful taste in the mouth attached to the offer.

I'd argue that there are no benefits for Britain from cutting the tax on income from shale gas from 62% to 30%, as Chancellor George Osborne did last year despite the UK having signed up to the G20 pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. Fossil fuels are six times as expensive for taxpayers as renewables and one Cambridge University study suggests that if fracking got going, it would need to pay £6bn a year to mitigate the climate change impacts. So no benefits for Britain and a mounting awareness of the considerable downsides too.

The industry has also helped shed light on what fracking might - or might not - mean for Britain. Most notable was the statement from the boss of lead fracking firm Cuadrilla Lord Browne in January that it would be five years before it was known if there was viable shale gas in Britain, an astonishing admission that blows out of the water those who proclaim shale gas as a short-term "bridging" fuel, just for the next few years.

The fracking debate has had a further impact - it's helped us learn more about the nature of our government, and it's not pretty. Just last week, it emerged that Lord Browne, after enjoying three meetings with the Environment Agency head in his Cuadrilla role, got a further emergency meeting arranged by Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, at which he won considerable concessions, including on waste permits.

The revolving door between business and government is well oiled - as we've seen with the Big Six energy companies. It really is past time that we said enough to this kind of clear and striking conflict of interest that must put the individual staff concerned in an impossible position, as well as scarring the reputation of our civil service. As the man tasked with to "improving governance across Whitehall", Lord Browne might want to start with his own position.

This cosiness between the fracking industry and the government isn't new - emails from last year showing the industry and government chattily, merrily, and entirely inappropriately, acting together to promote their "dash for gas". And then there's the close ties, between so many of our MPs and the industry ... just take Peter Lilley. Of course it's unrealistic to expect that MPs will come to the job without any existing ties or alliances, but we should be asking them to consider what dual roles they should be occupying when an MP.

So we've learnt a lot since the prospect of fracking for shale gas first reared its head in the UK. One thing hasn't changed though - fracking remains incompatible with building the kind of green energy future we need to avert the very worst climate change. Or, as UN Environmental Programme head, Achim Steiner, puts it: fracking is "a liability in our struggle to meet climate change targets over this century".

More, the environmental risks are better understood, and concerns around the world growing. In Australia, independent MP Tony Windsor has just released a strongly negative report about coal seam gas, Los Angeles has just called for a ban, and resistance is growing in Canada.

I don't when I speak at public meetings around the country have to explain "fracking", as I did only a couple of years ago. And I find very little resistance when I say "let's not do it".