Don Foster MP writes… Justifiable NIMBYism?

I  suspect I’m not the only one to be delighted and relieved about the announcement this week about new protections to be put in place that will restrict “Fracking” in sensitive areas.

Geological evidence shows that fracking could lead to a significant disruption to the hot water spring waters on which the tourism of the World Heritage City of Bath depends and could damage the water pressure without which we could see buildings in the city collapse.

Even though the latest British Geological Survey Maps show that the three main areas where large amounts of shale oil and gas exists lie nowhere near the city, it’s reassuring that the new protections offered by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) would set a high hurdle before fracking could be considered near Bath.

Other parts of the country deserve similar protections; not just World Heritage Sites, but also National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty. And that’s what Ed Davey has secured.

But I actually agree with the rationale for the exploration of shale gas and oil as long as it’s done in a responsible way.

Liberal Democrats in government have already made huge progress in bringing on more renewable power, but for the next few decades as we reduce energy supplies from coal and are still building up green energy supplies, we’ll still need a lot of gas.  So, the question is where should we get it from?  It’s not a green policy to say yes to increasing imports from as far away as Qatar when potentially home-grown gas could add to the mix.

And we also have to consider energy security. The more “home-grown” energy we have, the less dependent we are on supplies from potentially unreliable sources.

That’s why fracking – done in a responsible way – could be so important.

Despite opposition, Ed Davey has secured major new protections that will ensure a responsible approach to any licencing regime for fracking.

As I see it, Ed has secured three key protections;

1– As part of the initial application process, DECC will require the ‘Statement of Environmental Awareness’ to be particularly comprehensive when it comes to sensitive areas or areas adjacent to them.   Unless DECC is satisfied the application will be rejected.

– The Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) will publish new planning guidance.  It is clear that applications in these areas will be refused unless there are exceptional circumstances and that it is in the public interest.

-If planning is refused, and a developer appeals, DCLG can now ‘call in the case’ and ensure the new planning guidance has been applied correctly.

Ed has successfully struck the right balance between justified NIMBYISM and national need.


* Don Foster is MP for Bath, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip and Coalition Deputy Chief Whip.

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  • Thank you for this piece, Don. It would be interesting to hear a response of some description to the ongoing issue of earthquakes and inflammable tap water we hear from the United States following fracking; is the government keeping an eye on these reports? (bearing in mind that many impact assessments over there have been done by oil firms themselves with the backing of chiefly Republican-led local government that appears to ignore residents’ concerns)

  • Stephen Hesketh 30th Jul '14 - 1:22pm

    Until much more is known about this technology and European experience relating to aquafers (I share John Grout’s scepticism re US risk-assessments), I think it would be a very good idea to avoid areas associated with under ground water abstraction.

    I also agree with Don that providing there are no genuine environmental concerns and provided its use is not used/abused (by the Tories for example) to stall the introduction of renewables, I personally think the use of fracked gas is desireable to nuclear power. Mentioning NIMBYs, I certainly know which form of generator I would prefer to be down-wind of!

    The benefit of (on-off) gas powered electricity is that it appears to be a better fit to the natural variability renewables than are other forms of generation such as nuclear.

    Would it be possible to pyrolise non-recyleable plastic waste and to burn the resultant ?ethylene/propylene gases as a proportion of the methane burnt in gas powered stations? Could CO2 from gas powered electricity generation be stored in the fracked areas once the abstractable gas had been removed?

  • Its like HS2, lets get on with it, instead of pussy footing around. There is too much to lose otherwise. Easy to find negatives, we always ignore the positives which in my view are in the vast majority. There that should get people going!

  • Simon McGrath 30th Jul '14 - 1:58pm

    John – no need to rely on US assessment of the safety of fracking. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering carried out an independent study. You will be pleased to hear that there conclusion was that with proper controls is was safe.

  • @Simon McGrath
    if fracking is safe, does that mean the OP’s self-declared Nimbyism is unjustified?

  • Richard Dean 30th Jul '14 - 4:08pm

    It does seem to make sense to consider both the risk of something going wrong and the consequences if it does. If there is a low risk of something going wrong but a high cost if it does, then that is a worse situation compared to low risk and lesser consequence.

    The real trick though is probably in evaluating these things – risk and consequence are both to some extent subjective and contestable. Some of the consequences will include public perceptions, and reactions such as in terms of house price comparisons between areas with versus without fracking

  • No-one should imagine that fracking is in any sense green. The only justification for it is security of supply and even then I’m not convinced it’s a good solution given the possibility of things going badly wrong.

    Those cheery little animations repeatedly shown on TV don’t address the reality that there are faults and old boreholes, some known and some unknown, all over the place which could provide a pathway for fracking fluids to get into aquifers. Fracking involves some really nasty carcinogenic chemicals; if those did get into aquifers, particularly in the parts of the country where ground water is an important part of supply, then the consequential costs would be incalculable but I don’t suppose those responsible would stick around so it would be yet another case of socialising the costs.

    So here’s a suggestion: require the fracking companies to take out insurance against the possibility of untoward consequences. What’s not to like (said with tongue firmly in cheek)? It’s a market solution that would reveal the true cost of externalities and prevent them falling on the taxpayer. It would also, I strongly suspect, reveal that fracking isn’t financially viable if it has to bear its full costs. In other words it’s probably not the best solution to security of supply concerns.

  • Green Voter 30th Jul '14 - 6:37pm

    “but I don’t suppose those responsible would stick around”

    This is what happened with Freedom Industries in the US. After rendering tap water unsafe for use, it went bankrupt. You would think that the party leadership would want to learn from this

  • Richard Dean 30th Jul '14 - 6:45pm

    Alternatively, one could view shale as a pollutant that could easily get into groundwater through those “faults and old boreholes, some known and some unknown, all over the place”, and whose removal from the ground by the fracking companies would therefore be a very good thing indeed.

  • @greenvoter The Freedom Industries spill in the US had nothing to do with fracking.

  • Green Voter 30th Jul '14 - 7:54pm

    My point was simply that companies can go under, leaving others to pay the environmental cost. I do not see that the UK fracking companies would be different from this

  • Helen Dudden 30th Jul '14 - 8:44pm

    Don, that’s right give it to someone else the toxic chemicals. You know as well as I do the mixture that is pushed into the ground, I can remember when you were against such procedures, like the Post Office closures.

    How things changed, how you changed.

    I won’t be rude but, I still work on children’s issues as well as the problems I personally had with housing.

    Just a woman who believes in fairness and justice and transparency, and human rights. I am not afraid to stand for human rights.

  • Helen Dudden 30th Jul '14 - 8:45pm

    This is why people make changes, because.

  • Jenny Barnes 31st Jul '14 - 8:50am

    ” It’s not a green policy to say yes to increasing imports from as far away as Qatar when potentially home-grown gas could add to the mix.”
    Interesting assertion. Gas doesn’t “grow”, by the way, it’s mined – but I’m sure you knew that…it’s not renewable.
    We (humanity) have already found more fossil fuels than we can safely burn. Do you think the fossil fuel companies are going to go quietly? See what happened to Australia’s carbon tax if you do. Qatar gas does not involve fracking, is easily extracted, and will likely be burnt anyway – the investment in LNG cooling trains and carriers is many billions of £/$.
    It seems to me that if your argument for some continuing gas fired power stations is good, then fuelling them with Qatar gas is probably greener (although still not very green) than fracking, lots of pipes, and a further source of fossil fuel.
    We need to think a bit differently about electricity consumption with renewables – turn major consumer demands like aluminium smelting on and off – smooth supply with long haul interconnectors and so on.
    Oh, carbon capture and storage is far too expensive to use, if indeed it can be made to work.

  • Helen Dudden 31st Jul '14 - 12:21pm

    I agree that there are other ways to employ the solar energy system. Wet electric heating is one way. Of course, there will be more interest in making a greener energy if it was better used.

    Don Foster was so against this once.

    I wonder if our energy productions were back in the state system, and less profit to be made, would we still be going down this path.

    I don’t wish to leave a toxic planet for my grandchildren, and those that follow.

  • Richard Dean – the shale itself is not a pollutant, not even when it contains a substantial amount of hydrocarbons and comes right to the surface as on the Dorset coast and elsewhere. The risks are around the mix of toxic chemicals they pump down under high pressure to help liberate the hydrocarbons. In the US the companies regard these chemical brews as proprietary and will not disclose what they are but it is generally believed that they contain a high proportion of highly carcinogenic benzene derivatives. That, plus the risk they will escape and permanently write off the water supply for some unfortunate corner of Surrey, is why I think the downside is uninsurable. I’m not sure why Lib Dems should approach fracking differently from nuclear on this point – no public subsidies etc.

    Despite the hype around fracking the economics of the industry are shaky to say the least. See for instance the first graph on this link.

    In each of the last three years the US industry has experienced a > $100 billion cash deficit. Of course, that is worse than it might have been because of low US gas prices but on the other hand it’s only been possible because of exceptionally low interest rates. Also remember that they are cherry picking the best fracking real estate; after this is gets rapidly harder and less rewarding.

  • Lib Dems are a remarkably trusting lot. I was expecting that someone else would comment on an obvious problem with the three “key protections”.

    1. The Statement of Environmental Awareness will have to be “particularly comprehensive” in sensitive areas. That could mean anything or nothing – longer perhaps, more boxes ticked, more consultants whose future commissions depend on the answer consulted. In the final analysis it’s just mood music.

    2. New planning guidelines will mean that applications will be rejected unless there are “exceptional circumstances” and it’s in the “public interest”. We already know that in general the Conservatives think it’s in the public interest so that’s not much of a test. As for “exceptional circumstances” that, like beauty, is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

    3. If an application is refused DCLG (aka Eric Pickles) can call in the case. In other words Pickles will decide if the planning authority has correctly allowed for “exceptional circumstances”. What’s the betting that in DCLG’s interpretation “exceptional circumstances” will sometimes be whether the application affects a Conservative marginal or not? (Although I’m sure Pickles would never put it quite like that!)

  • Helen Dudden 31st Jul '14 - 5:38pm

    GF. I totally agree with you. That was the reason Don Foster did stand against fracking. I remember it well.

    Was that not the case Don? We are talking serious chemicals, as I said, I don’t want to leave a polluted world for my grandchildren.

  • >” The only justification for it is security of supply”
    Fracking fails spectacularly at that test: totally insufficient reserves have been discovered to make any real impact on our consumption and hence dependency on foreign supplies. About the only thing it does do is to create economic activity, although even this palls into insignificance when set against our annual oil and gas bill…

  • Helen Dudden 2nd Aug '14 - 5:49pm

    As you say, someone makes money.

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