Why fracking is in big trouble

Why fracking is in big trouble

The more the industry tries to force shale gas on angry communities, the more toxic it becomes writes David Powell of the New Economics Foundation.


No matter how you look at it, fracking as a large-scale endeavour for the UK seems pretty screwed.

The finances of frackers are creaking. Local councils are simply refusing to roll over in the face of the industry’s bully-boy tactics. Shale is getting more and more toxic, as MPs and the public turn against it. The government doesn’t talk about it any more, and behind the scenes has massively lowered its expectations of how much fracking it thinks we’re going to get. It’s only going to get harder and harder for national politicians to claim that it’s somehow in the national interest.

If I were a would-be fracker, I’d be playing very, very nice right now. But despite it all, they’re not…

Earlier this month Derbyshire County Council’s planning committee overwhelmingly voted (9-1) to oppose INEOS’s proposals to test-frack near Eckington, not far from Sheffield. The significant thing wasn’t the scale of their opposition, but the strength of their fury.  INEOS is throwing all it has at trying to force its rigs onto a community that demonstrably doesn’t want it, most perniciously going over the council’s head to secure a national planning inquiry.

The council, refusing to be silenced, gave its views on the plans anyway. These views were: go away. Councillors were seriously pissed off. The chair of the Committee took the time to specifically accuse INEOS of acting 'disgracefully' in attempting to trample over local democracy. While the fight isn’t over – the national inquiry is still going ahead – INEOS now has to contend with the council’s continued formal opposition. That’s a massive win for Eckington Against Fracking and its many local supporters.

Did INEOS take all this gracefully, chastened by the reaction to its behaviour? Did it ‘eck. Its CEO slammed the 'confused' council as being 'led by politics' (isn’t that kind of the point?), darkly hinting that councillors are unwise to take on the 'costly' public inquiry. That’s right. A company that desperately needs the tide of opinion to turn in its favour sharpish chooses instead to go to war with elected representatives for daring to stand up to them.  Then again, this is the same company that’s taking legal action against the National Trust against its refusal to let it conduct seismic surveys under its land.

Local councils are simply refusing to roll over in the face of the industry’s bully-boy tactics.

As a PR strategy, this Ryanair-style combativeness seems unhelpful at the best of times. But given that the only way fracking has any kind of future in this country is if people think it’s a good idea, it seems positively self-defeating.  

The thing is this. There is no social licence for fracking at all. Only 16 per cent of the public support it. Every application even for test fracking seems to trigger resistance from councillors, on the back of the anger of a remarkably diverse cross-section of local residents. In Eckington, the tenacity and breadth of tireless local campaigns was a thing to behold. And to even get close to the amount of fracking that meets the industry’s hype, you’re talking thousands of wells. Thousands of fights.

Frackers had two options. Option one is bust: persuade communities that it’s somehow in their best interests. This is clearly not happening.  Which only leaves option two: hammer away, blam-blam-blam, until someone somewhere cracks. Perhaps this explains that blunderbuss PR strategy: it’s the only thing they’ve got left. The idea must be that, eventually, campaigners will realise the game is lost, and go home.

Fat chance.

It’s hard to conceive of a way of producing energy that annoys people more than fracking. No single place is going to go under without a massive fight for its right to choose what kind of development it does and doesn’t want. Every time the industry tries to stamp this out, its toxicity and unpopularity will only grow further.

It’s hard to conceive of a way of producing energy that annoys people more than fracking.

More and more MPs, seeing the scale of uproar, are publicly turning against fracking (if they were ever in need of turning in the first place). Eckington’s Conservative Lee Rowley, for example – elected on an anti-fracking ticket – has been strident in his opposition to INEOS’s plans. It doesn’t take many of his colleagues to do likewise for things to start getting very uncomfortable indeed for Mrs May. Even the Conservative MP reviewing the party’s energy policy thinks the case for fracking is crumbling.

All of that makes for a toxic horse which the government appears ever less interested in backing. The silence of Mrs May and ministers on fracking is deafening; it’s really not on message for a government newly committed to looking and sounding green.  Long gone are the days of George Osborne taking every possible opportunity to talk about how wonderful it will be when the UK is pincushioned with rigs. When the chips are down, it’s surely a political non-starter to back the hammer-fisted fossil fuel giant over the plucky villagers standing up for their future.

So there’s that. And then the ban on fracking in Scotland. And Labour’s promise to axe it if it gets into power. And the government’s new ‘financial resilience’ checks on fracking firms. And heaven only knows what year after year of no-fracking must be doing to companies that have bet the farm on the gas flowing at some point; all of these fights must be costing a fortune.

It all makes you think that it wouldn’t be remotely surprising, really, if one by one the firms started to announce that due to some kind of ‘internal strategic review’, they’ve decided they don’t want to frack any more after all. I wouldn’t blame them. Nor, I suspect, would their bank managers.

Those will be press releases that the good people of Eckington – and hundreds of other united communities around the UK – will be all too happy to read.

David Powell is environment lead at the New Economics Foundation. A longer version of this blog originally appeared at Business Green

  • Ineos
  • Eckington
  • Fracking
  • Derbyshire County Council
  • Eckington Against Fracking
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