Despite false starts and a few tremors, fracking has begun again in the UK for the first time since 2011. In large part thanks to this long delay, the Government is now proposing to make it easier for developers to start drilling by loosening the planning rules relating to it, and reducing the power that local people have over new fracking sites in their area.
Under current proposals so-called “exploratory drilling” could be approved via permitted development - bypassing the standard planning process. Exploratory drilling would, in planning terms, be treated along the same lines as a new conservatory. Meanwhile, decisions on full-scale fracking could be approved by Westminster via the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project Regime - rather than by elected local councils.
This would be a huge mistake. Whatever the arguments for fracking, a firm commitment to local democracy has rightly been a mantra of modern conservatism. It is only at the local level that local concerns can properly be taken into account. When a local authority reviews a shale gas application it will look at very local issues, from road access, the effects of large volumes of truck movements, light and noise pollution and so on. No one can argue that central Government can possibly understand these local concerns from Whitehall.
The Government cannot square its often-stated commitment to localism and democratic planning with these proposals. Nor for that matter can they be squared with the Government’s policy in relation to the far less disruptive and more popular on-shore wind turbines, which can be rejected or approved locally.
Given the potential for methane leakages, the Committee on Climate Change are sceptical that fracking can be done in a way that is environmentally friendly - but they acknowledge that gas will continue to play a part of our energy mix for decades, as a bridge from a world powered by fossil fuels to a net zero emissions economy. Indeed part of the Government’s success in decarbonisation in recent years has been the shift from generating electricity from coal to gas - although it is worth stating that new renewables, including wind and solar, are now cheaper than both.
But the argument that fracking will reduce our reliance on Russian gas simply does not stand up to scrutiny. According to Ministers in 2016 just 1% of UK gas came from Russia. The largest amount of our gas is imported from Norway - a friend and ally that is highly unlikely to turn off the taps any time soon.
In addition, to replace this imported gas, we would need to frack on a hopelessly unrealistic scale. To replace just 50% of the gas that we import, the British countryside would need to be pockmarked by over 6,000 well pads. The UK is not Utah. Without the wide open spaces needed to host the industrial equipment and sheer volume of trucks, fracking in the UK will necessarily blight communities - and the Government will face a huge backlash from these communities if it imposes fracking on them against their will.
It is difficult to overstate just how unpopular fracking is with the British public. The last BEIS attitude tracker showed only 18% support. For context, 76% of respondents supported onshore wind. Fracking is so unpopular that BEIS have now stopped asking what people think about it for fear of the results. MPs who have sites in their constituencies will tell you that those opposed to fracking are not just the predictable gaggle of left-wing campaigners - these are Conservative voters who are deeply about concerned about the mass-scale industrialisation of the British countryside. We ignore their concerns at our peril.
This unpopularity explains the delay in fracking in the UK. Understandably, people do not want the trucks, the tremors, the noise, the nuisance, and the pollution coming to their area. The response from the Government cannot be to simply change the rules and make it harder for concerned local people - and even elected local representatives - to object. By holding a consultation on planning regulations the Government has fulfilled its manifesto commitment to review the planning rules around exploratory drilling and fracking.
But by now, the Government surely has its answer: the final say on fracking should remain with local people.