Opinion: The Dark Satanic Wells of Fracking

Like many enthusiasts, I’m looking forward to the bombastic Last Night of the Proms, one month today. And I bet I’ll not be alone in bellowing out the words of England’s most popular anthem, Jerusalem.Blake Newton Fracking

Two centuries ago, William Blake began writing his epic poem Milton, including perhaps Jerusalem, while living in Felpham, Sussex. A few years later, he was back in London where the streets were being illuminated for the first time by gas lamps. The coal gas of Blake’s era gave way in the late 1960s to the cleaner supplies from the North Sea. Now we are witnessing the third coming of gas – hydraulic fracturing of shale. And this takes us directly back to Sussex, where protesters are mounting a blockade against fracking at Balcombe.

Green campaigners’ passions flare at any mention of fracking. The Campaign to Protect Rural England seems less certain that fracking is out of order, at least as a temporary energy fix. But it is at one with the Financial Times in believing that Balcombe is far from the best place to start. The drilling site is within the protected High Weald area of outstanding natural beauty and, even though the blockade is being led by eco-activists, most villagers say they are opposed to fracking in their parish.

Last week, the government issued planning guidance on fracking. This gives a clear presumption in favour of fracking. My reading of the rules is that if any local council is brave enough to turn down an application to explore for shale gas, its decision will be overturned on appeal to the planning inspectorate.

So where do politicians stand?

David Cameron, George Osborne side with energy minister Michael Farron as enthusiasts for fracking. But some Tory MPs are unhappy.

Lib Dem energy secretary Ed Davey is reported to have confessed: “I love shale gas.” Lib Dem President Tim Farron is reported as having a different view:

“I am afraid the Government has seen flashing pound signs, and has not considered the long-term threats fracking poses to the countryside.”

Lib Dem minister Don Foster agrees that fracking could pose a ‘real danger’. But Policy motion F10 at the Autumn Conference, which is calling for green growth and green jobs, argues for:

“Limited shale gas extraction, ensuring… planning decisions remain with local authorities and local communities are fully consulted… and fully compensated for all damage to the local landscape.”

But the power over whether fracking will go ahead does not lie with local councillors. It resides in the new planning guidance and how that is interpreted by the planning inspectorate. This guidance set to deliver George Osborne his “chariot of fire”. Large areas of our countryside will soon be dominated by dark, satanic wells whatever local communities and environmentalists think.

On the the Last Night of the Proms, few of us roaring out Blake’s anthem will give a moment’s thought to how this new industrial revolution is set to wreck “England’s green and pleasant land.” We will just be glad the lights are still on.

But the question will remain. Is fracking too high a price to pay for our lust for energy?

See also: Stephen Gilbert MP – Shale Gas exploration – Why a cautious approach is the right one

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk.

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25 Comments

  • Neil Bradbury 7th Aug '13 - 9:13am

    When someone can show me evidence of fracking causing major damage then I will change my view that opponents of fracking are anti science flat earthers. Not sure there could be a better place to start than in the desolate south 😉

  • Clear Thinker 7th Aug '13 - 9:46am

    The ignorance and mania in “Large areas of our countryside will soon be dominated by dark, satanic wells” is certainly not worthy of a Libdem approach to this issue.

    People have legitimate worries, for safety and the environment and the value of the homes, for example, and they need to be re-assured.

    But the protests at Balcombe seem very premature, since the company is not fracking at the moment, and they seem out of line with a democratic process which will include a public enquiry which will be necessary before any future fracking were to occur..

  • Simon McGrath 7th Aug '13 - 10:42am

    If only some independent review could be carried out by some respected group of engineers and scientists. Oh, it has been.
    http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/

  • Frank Furter 7th Aug '13 - 11:21am

    What are we going to do about future energy supplies? Every potential source has problems and is opposed or disliked by some group:
    1. oposition to fracking (earthquakes, water pollution etc),
    2. opposition to nuclear ( dangerous technology, terrorism, disposal of waste),
    3. opposition to windmills (intermittent supply, noisy, disfigures the landscape),
    4. opposition to coal (whether imported or home dug, its still dirty – climate change),
    5. opposition to gas (especially from Russia – no security of supply, climate change),
    6. opposition to barrages ( environmental effects – whether the Wash or the Severn still disrupts birds and tidal flow),
    7. opposition to solar (China produces solar panels too cheaply which undercut western workers, intermittent)
    8. opposition to biofuels (displaces food crops, causes starvation in third world, reduces woodland)
    9. oil (filthy, dangerous to extract, north sea running out, imports from despotic regimes, price variability)
    That just leaves hydro – surely there must be good reasons to oppose that?
    Whatever source of energy is suggested there is always a vocal group opposed. What are we to do?

    – – –

  • Simon McGrath

    Only if regulated – and we know what the attitude of the Tories is to HSE or ‘red tape’ as they call it. Cuts to Health and Safety Executive etc.

    If this has to be done it has to be done after a proper risk assessment and a regulatory framework that provides proper checks. The Tories tend not to take this too seriously and tend to err on the side of the company

  • Graham Martin-Royle 7th Aug '13 - 12:53pm

    @Frank Furter: Go back to the stone age it would seem. No more travel further than you can walk, only eat what you yourself can grow/catch, no more healthcare, no more education, no entertainment apart from what you put on yourself, no industry, no jobs, nothing. The futures bright, the futures stone age!

  • @ Graham M-Royle & Frank Furter

    I think you both have the overall picture, but I don’t think we need to go back to the stone age. I think somewhere around the 1940’s will do it. So, recycle the patio pressure washer, leaf blower, electric toothbrush, tumble drier,… you get the picture. Think 1940’s with the internet, more concentration on local agriculture, and a decent basic level of healthcare.
    A bit like Cuba in a way.

  • Clear Thinker – Hope you are true to your title! If fracking should be pursued enthusiastically, does that mean we should all dismiss the research which says we should not even burn all of the currently discovered fossil fuel resources, let alone look for more in shale deposits, or risk average temperatures around the world going outside what are regarded as safe levels?

  • Frank Furter 7th Aug '13 - 4:53pm

    @ John Dunn
    I’m old enough to remember the 40’s. Do I want to return – no thanks. But this is the problem isn’t it. The good villagers of Balcombe wish to retain their delightful lifestyle, which, without doubt, will be highly energy intensive. But they do not want to put up with any inconvenience or disruption to maintain that lifestyle. Somebody, somewhere else, will have to endure the real cost of producing the energy they use. I pity the poor politicians, they can do no right and yet if the lights go out they will be to blame. If you read Cranford you will find opposition to railways coming there. Now railways are seen as a part of the English countryside, especially on those occasions when steam is visible.

  • jenny barnes 7th Aug '13 - 4:56pm

    Opposition to solar:
    Concentrated solar ( mirrors / boilers) in hot sunny places is probably the optimum technology to avoid most environmental problems. If salt is used as the working fluid, there’s enough stored energy to continue production well into the evening; and by connecting up different areas with HVDC grids it can be extended further. It’s costly (although not as costly as wrecking the planet), and for Europeans at least the ideal places to build it are politically unstable – but Spain, Southern Italy, Greece, Turkey are all reasonably feasible sites.
    With sufficient renewable energy, petrol, diesel and kerosene fuel can be made from CO2 and water as an energy carrier, rather than as a fossil fuel source.
    And what Tim13 said.

  • nuclear cockroach 7th Aug '13 - 5:10pm

    @Simon McGrath

    The report that you refer to was in response to a request to “review the scientific and engineering evidence and consider whether the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’) as a means to extract shale gas could be managed effectively in the UK.”

    Furthermore, the report specifically notes that “risks associated with the subsequent use of shale gas nor climate risks have been analysed.” The report makes it clear that further research into the compatibility of a novel domestic source of hydrocarbon fuel and the reductions in greenhouse emissions mandated by the Climate Change Act, 2008, is required. To assume that adding to emissions is “safe” in the absence of that research would be dangerous.

    To say that the research has been carried out, as you say it has, is plain wrong. The report makes it clear that it has not.

  • @Clear Thinker
    “But the protests at Balcombe seem very premature, since the company is not fracking at the moment”

    So at what point in the process should people protest? Remember for fracking to begin, the planning process including any public enquiry has completed…

    If and probably when a company decides to frack on my doorstep, I’ll be shouting about it as soon as I know, if only to encourage them to be more generous with the community payback and to encourage them to be much more considered in planning their operations …

  • Andy Boddington 8th Aug '13 - 7:05am

    @Simon Shaw

    The fracking planning guidance is new and different interpretations are inevitable. Planning magazine spoke to planning experts who gave the view that it amounts a presumption in favour of fracking.

    My reading concurs with this view. The guidance gives strict instructions to give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy. Buffer zones between rigs and residential areas or amenities are ruled out. Councils are not allowed to take into account issues such as seismic activity, flaring and venting, potential impact on ground water, or alternative energy supplies. That will be left to the various regulatory bodies. Cumulative impact of wells and cannot be considered at exploration stage – but obviously once gas is discovered it is going to be hard to turn down extraction given the overriding economic imperative of the guidance.

    The overall balance of the document is to give communities and councils few grounds for turning down shale gas projects. It contrasts greatly with the guidance on renewable energy issued last week, which is more balanced.

    @Clear Thinker

    It isn’t necessary to have a public inquiry before fracking will occur. The planning permission will be decided by councillors and I doubt that few will be brave enough to go against the national guidance to put the economy first. If a council rejects a proposal, there might be a public hearing for the appeal, but it is open to the planning inspectorate to deal with the matter by correspondence.

  • Dave Eastham 8th Aug '13 - 9:46am

    As far as Balcombe and the planning process re “fracking” is concerned, the latest issue of Private Eye (P.E. Issue 1346 9th to 22nd 8/13 page 5) – has some very interesting things to say about local planning murkiness. – and that’s before the latest planning guidance on the process was issued. As has been quite rightly said, theoretically, the regulatory framework exists within the UK that should adequately safely regulate the fracking process, if properly applied and followed. Unlike some of the tales of woe we have seen from the USA for instance. As bcrombie has pointed out however, this relies on the Health and Safety Executive being functional and having the resources to do this. After the Tories “Red Tape Agenda” nonsense, somehow , I for one, don’t feel exactly very reassured it will happen.

    Greenest Government? – I don’t think so.

  • Clear Thinker 8th Aug '13 - 10:20am

    Thanks for the helpful correction, Andy. But there is still a rigorous process to go through, one that has been a welcomed part of our local democracy for a long time. The idea is fundamentally anti-democratic that a process is weak simply because you don’t think it will give the result you want.

    There is some interesting further information here: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06073.pdf

  • Peter Chivall 8th Aug '13 - 12:03pm

    Without going into the arguments for or against fracking per se, there seems to be a real weakness in the Coalition’s processes that have allowed the Planning Guidance on fracking to come about. Not long ago we had Tory ministers trying to issue guidance that would effectively rule out onshore windfarms (or grid links to offshore) where even a small minority objected. We rightly sat on that and the principles of localism in its wider democratic sense were upheld.
    Yet here we have a return to New Labour centralism which implies that fracked oil and gas are an essential component of national energy provision. How was this agreed? Which LibDem ministers were consulted and what did they say?
    Likewise, Osborne is able to offer massive (and potentially costly) tax breaks to fracking companies, while opposing sensible priceguarantees for onshore wind and other no-carbon renewables. Which LibDem ministers were consulted on this and what did they agree?
    If our Ministers in key positions were either unable, or unwilling, to stand up up to anti-green Tories with their oil-and-gas interests and climate change denyer friends, there seems little point in continuing to suffers as members of this Coalition. When you add the evil farce of the bedroom tax, secret courts, destruction of defendants rights by removing Legal Aid in most trials, and now the Home Office sending facist-style hoardings around on vans and Nazi-style sweeps of ethnic minority workers in the pretence of seeking illegal migrants to arrest, I seriously question I seriously question our own Leadership’s commitment to Liberal values of freedom and fairness.

  • David White 8th Aug '13 - 1:06pm

    Here in ‘the desolate north-east’, exploratory drillings are already taking place in the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds (candidate for Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status). These exploration rigs are huge and the sites are extensive. Many people in both Hull and the East Riding are concerned.

    Anxiety about fracking is not nimbyism – well, not always. The water companies have already formally expressed concerns about the dangers of fracking for our precious water supplies. If you wish to do so,ou can check this at the water.org.uk website.

    In fact, I have an open mind about fracking. However, before I can favour the idea, I shall require much stronger unbiased scientific evidence that the process is safe. No, I’m not worried about earthquakes but I think the chemicals used in fracking do pose a potential health hazard – and, socially, I am concerned about the effects of the considerable lorry traffic upon quiet country roads in superb countryside.

    But I’m not a nimby – honestly: cross my heart and cut my throat!

  • You could further develop your article by pointing out that close to Fernhurst (the next site to be explored in Sussex) is Shulbrede Priory. Hubert Parry stayed there frequently and we are told it was the view south from this location that was the inspiration for the music for Jerusalem.

    With the way the planning regulations are being changed it seems likely – even though located within the South Downs National Park – that the view from the priory will soon have a large drilling tower slap bang in the middle of it at the proposed Nine Acre Copse drilling site, with large volumes of industrial traffic driving down the narrow country lane.

    The irony is that the rush to build more gas power generation will leave us thoroughly committed just as shale gas fails to live up to the hype and delivers a mere fraction of our requirements at great expense to our countryside. There is plenty of evidence that the US revolution will be very unlikely to be replicated here.

    Example: http://www.oxfordenergy.org/wpcms/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/UK-Shale-Gas-GPC1.pdf#

    Ultimately this will leave us more dependent than ever on imported gas, and with development of alternative solutions (nuclear has always seemed the lowest risk short to mid-term stepping stone) having been put off for another 20 years.

    The short term financial gains will be enjoyed by a small elite minority in the UK and US and Australian venture capitalists.

    Democracy!

  • Clear Thinker 8th Aug '13 - 5:51pm

    Is global climate change relevant to this debate?

    On the one hand, you do have to start stopping somewhere, but on the other, the only type of action on climate change that is likely to be effective in the long run is action at the international/global level.

    Put another way, we need energy. If we don’t get it internally, we’ll buy it in from abroad. The amount of energy we use is not likely to change much, but the price we pay for it is.

  • Andy Boddington 8th Aug '13 - 7:04pm

    @MIll TD

    I did not know the Parry connection – thanks!

  • Andy Boddington 9th Aug '13 - 9:28am

    Thanks for all the comments on this topic. There is a new article just up where we might continue the debate:

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/shale-gas-exploration-why-a-cautious-approach-is-the-right-one-35676.html

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