Removing the ability of people to block shale exploration under their property, while making further extravagant claims about its potential is not the way to found a UK shale gas and oil industryDamian Carrington Friday 23 May 2014
How do you solve a problem called fracking? The UK government is taking the "shock and awe" approach, today removing the ability of people to block shale exploration under their property while making further extravagant claims about its potential.
The difficulty for ministers is that the battle will be not be won with the policy equivalent of aerial pyrotechnics but on - and beneath - the ground. There, in the community, opposition is entrenching.
The problem is a real one: the UK would benefit from more domestic energy as the North Sea is drained of its fossil fuels, especially given gas giant Russia's actions in Ukraine and mega-deal with China that will divert copious gas eastwards. Gas, if it replaces coal, could also cut carbon emissions for a while.
From David Cameron down, Conservative ministers have been the fracking industry's biggest cheerleaders, offering fat tax breaks, repeating industry claims of billions of pounds of revenue and tens of thousands of jobs, and even making "baseless" claims that it will cut energy bills.
But this PR assault, promising a US-style oil and gas bonanza, is failing to convince the people who matter: those living above the shale. Another poll this week shows public opinion is hardening against fracking: opposition has risen from 37% from 33% last August (at the height of Cuadrilla's PR fiasco in Balcombe, Sussex), while support for fracking has fallen from 31% to 25%.
Removing the right of people to use trespass laws to object to fracking wells being drilled under their homes - a "costly, time-consuming and disproportionate" right, according to government - will delight the industry. One very senior figure told me this is one of the biggest barriers to progress it faces. But it will only bolster the rebellious resolve of those prepared to man the barricades against the drillers.
The "voluntary" £20,000 per horizontal well will be paid at a "community level", with the details to be decided by the industry itself. Compensating locals for the invasion of their spaces is necessary: look what happened when ministers allowed big wind farm companies to march into communities and then export all the profit back out again. But this compensation will have to be cash into people's hands to have any effect on opinion: a spruced up village hall is unlikely to change the opinion of those who think fracking is certain to poison their water and air.
Ministers have challenged this notion: they claim that a strict and comprehensive regulatory regime is in place to protect people and the environment. The problem is that people don't believe them, and not without reason.
Leading fracking company Cuadrilla have trespassed on people's land during explosive surveys, breached its planning permission and failed to inform anyone of a deformed well casing for six months. The government has sneaked through legal changes to stop fracking companies having to inform everyone in an area of its intentions and successfully lobbied to death EU proposals for stricter fracking rules. Ministers have also ignored Royal Society advice to develop specific fracking regulation, rather than using the existing patchwork of rules. Furthermore, a recent independent scientific study found there are significant "unknowns" about the safety of future UK fracking wells.
The "shock and awe" strategy also carries the risk of blowing up in ministers faces, when people judge their enthusiasm as shrill hype. Today's report from the British Geological Survey estimating the fuel buried beneath Kent, Sussex and Hampshire concludes there is 4.4bn barrels of oil under there, although no gas at all. But it notes: "There is a high degree of uncertainty in these figures. Indeed, there is a chance that there may be little or no ‘free oil’."
Professor Andrew Aplin, a shale expert at Durham University, says the heavy, viscous nature of the Weald oil and the tight, clay-rich rocks mean little oil may be extractable. “We might estimate that 1% of the Weald oil resource might be recoverable. This would equate to 0.05 billion barrels, which is about two months UK consumption. From a national perspective, this seems to be a rather small prize.” The same dashing of hopes has just occurred in the US, where the official government estimate for the nation's largest shale oil prospect has just plummeted by 96%.
The government's forced marched of the nation up the fracking hill, assisted by some frack-friendly media, is even worrying some in the industry. They say privately that excessive hype risks shooting down development before it even gets going.
Selling fracking was never going to be easy. Conservative MP Laura Sandys says "onshore wind is a walk in the park, by comparison", while former Tory energy minister Lord Howell says it will cost the party thousands of votes in crucial rural seats. Even fracking enthusiast and energy minister Michael Fallon faces opposition in his own Sevenoaks constituency, with his local party chairman saying he would be “uneasy” about the weakened trespass law because “an Englishman’s home has always been his castle”.
If the government really wants to win the fracking war, it needs to follow the path explained to me by one oil and gas industry veteran, who has spent decades developing new fields all over the world. You need to start small, slow and steady, prove the doubters wrong with scrupulous good practice and openness and also convince people their fears, not the industry's, take priority. The government's big bang approach is the exact opposite.
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