Lee Rowley: Fracking will concrete over the countryside and impact local communities. And for what?
After experiencing the reality of fracking first-hand, key questions still remain about the impact on communities and the true scale of gas production, argues Lee Rowley
Fracking is back in the news. Six years since its last highly (un)successful outing with the British public, we are having another dalliance; approving production in Lancashire, pushing through lots of exploration and, inexplicably, toying with loosening planning rules to boost the industry. That would be an industry which is now being pushed by the Government for no clear objective.
I should place my cards on the table early on; I don’t come at this subject from a purely academic perspective. My constituency, North East Derbyshire, is in the Midlands fracking belt and is experiencing the reality of the early stages of fracking first hand. We’ve dealt with the exploratory application itself, some protests, a planning inspector, a torrent of objections and the likely impact on small, rural communities nearby to the proposed site. And, we don’t like it at all.
From a policy perspective, I haven’t yet found anyone who will articulate the clear objective we hope to achieve as a country. Ministerial statements are peppered with vague statements about “substantial benefits” or playing a “major role” but nothing is actually quantified. Consultation documents shed no light. A dozen parliamentary questions that I’ve put down to various Ministers haven’t elicited it. No-one will be clear about what we are trying to do. And, without that information, we can’t be sure whether the trade-off required is worth with.
Firstly, individual fracking sites are significant impositions on the countryside. Even just to explore, each site requires two football fields of concrete, a light industrial estate containing around two dozen bulky items, a rig of up to 60m high to drill the well, and thousands of lorry and vehicle movements required to support. If the exploration finds something, all of this equipment is then retained for decades. In the case of North East Derbyshire, all of this is proposed in the middle of greenbelt, just a few hundred metres away from a village of hundreds of houses and where the rural roads will need to be physically reconfigured just so the HGVs can get down them to build the site.
Secondly, the Government’s policy, as far as it can be interpreted, promotes these sites all over the Midlands, North and parts of the South. Fracking can only play a “major role”, to quote a phrase, if it is done at scale – thousands of wells on thousands of sites around the country. Both pro- and anti-frackers agree that something north of 6,000 wells would be needed to have any significant effect. Some suggest many thousands more.
Given this significant impact, the question then turns to the trade-off. Again, on this, the Government isn’t clear. The best that can be derived is to reduce price, to boost jobs or to improve the UK’s energy independence. Some of these objectives are practically impossible – the UK’s gas prices are linked to the wider European market so, unless you are going to start pumping enough to move prices across the entire continent, that will never happen. As important as job creation is, each individual site is projected to offer only a handful of roles – so hardly the step change people hope for. And, on energy independence, even the most optimistic projections of fracking in the UK (and the ones which require something north of 6,000 sites) would still mean that fracking would only cover a portion of the UK’s gas demand for the next decades. Whether we like it or not, we are going to be reliant upon foreign gas in the future.
So, is it all worth it? If done at scale, fracking is going to – quite literally – concrete over the countryside and cause quite substantial impacts to local communities for an undefined, and possibly unachievable, objective. The key questions that remain to be answered are these: how big is the impact on communities and what will it achieve? On both of those questions, fracking as a policy is found wanting.