As we approach the next general election, will the UK ever develop an impartial national debate on hydraulic fracturing?
The first time I came across hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) was when interviewing geologists at test sites in the north of South Africa and Botswana seven years ago. I was looking at how such technologies might affect fragile populations where water is already scarce and where nomadic communities, as well as farmers, rely on shallow aquifers for their livelihoods, as does wildlife for its survival. I came away with a range of questions and have followed the debate since. Frequent reference was made then to the “fracking debate” in the USA but little did I know we also had hydraulic fracturing in the UK even then and had done so for decades, albeit mainly off-shore.
Now, several years later, we do have a national debate in the UK but it is far from being impartial or arriving at any consensus. It seems rooted in mistrust, conflicting information and entrenched positions: like the debate on Genetically-Modified Crops twenty years ago. Why did our policy-makers allow this to happen again?
There are very good reasons, even at a time of falling oil and gas prices, why the UK should be more self-sufficient in its energy supply. Issues surrounding pipelines from Russia receive a lot of publicity as do human rights in Saudi Arabia. By comparison, much less attention is given to Qatar (one the UK’s major overseas gas suppliers). There are good geo-political reasons, at a time when the North Sea Oil Fields resources are declining – or at least the UK’s bit of them, to look seriously at other sources of UK energy production. There are also very good environmental reasons why we should be shifting away from coal and oil to gas for our power generation in the medium term, whilst also building a solid base of renewables and possibly nuclear energy.
There are good arguments, but have they been heard by the British people? Public opinion polls suggest a low baseline of awareness as to what hydraulic fracturing actually is. The Government’s own research suggests that whilst three quarters of the population have heard about “fracking shale gas” about half of the population do not have an opinion either way about its efficacy, whilst those in opposition represent less than a quarter. Other polls suggest that opposition continues to grow to about 30% of those questioned, rising to 40% if it relates to a local area or up to 70% if in a National Park.
In my book on the “social licence” of activities, I define the concept as having three core definitional elements: legitimacy, trust and consent. The first is notoriously difficult to define but vested interests must be seen as part of it – is the case for fracking objectively made or do some stand to profit more than others. The ownership structure of the companies that hold the exploration licenses is perhaps a surprise to those outside of the industry and can raise concerns over potential or perceived conflicts of interest. There are hundreds of oil and gas exploration companies registered in London and operating across Africa and parts of Asia. It is possibly only those operating in the UK that have received scrutiny. It is not surprising that these companies employ former government officials or former captains of industry – they bring expertise but they also bring access. Cuadrilla, one of the leading UK fracking companies, is chaired by Lord Browne (a man I happen to admire greatly), the former BP boss but also an advisor to Government and there are number of former government ministers connected to the industry. There is of course nothing wrong with this necessarily but the state-energy nexus will need careful explaining to the public for the industry to maintain its legitimacy. It is one thing for BP or Shell to hire former government bods for their global operations, quite another when the drilling is in Sussex or Lancashire it would seem.
When it comes to “trust”, the polling suggests there is a significant way to go and that it is Greenpeace and the Green Party that are currently winning the national debate. And “consent”, well although exploration licenses have been granted by central government, local authorities seem increasingly willing to deny or delay planning permission in the face of local concerns. The protests in Balcombe during 2013 might only be the start of what is to come. All of this seems out of kilter when the real risks are considered. It seems the British people are more than willing to allow those in the Middle East or Africa to face environmental degradation or human rights abuses (such as those in the Niger Delta that have gone on for decades) but much more squeamish about drilling in their own leafy backyard – even if the impacts of which will be incomparably less. This Nimby-ism has rarely been called out (which politician, NGO or business sees it in their interests to do so?) but is clearly a strong component of the UK debate.
It might not be too late for the next UK Government to lead a national debate on the future of our energy supply and the many advantages of domestic energy production. And yes, as much of this as possible should be renewable in the short to medium-term with renewables dominating in the long-term. If there is no need for gas over the medium–term – and I mean really no foreseeable need – then fine, but I have yet to read any compelling evidence of this. Rather, if part of our national strategy is to move from oil and coal to gas over the shorter term – then the UK’s own gas should be part of the mix, surely, and not just that from Qatar and Norway. There are clearly environmental risks associated with fracking in the UK but the impacts of these will be far less than those in drought-prone parts of Africa where British companies are also leading the charge and the British public asks no questions. If the UK wants gas, then why not shoulder some of the risk at home, where it can be better managed and is subject to the full force of British law? We have for decades exported the environmental and human rights impacts of our energy demands.
The next government, likely to be a coalition of some kind, would do well to make Britain’s future energy policy as non-partisan and transparent as possible. Perhaps a multi-stakeholder approach could be developed where government, industry and civil society sit down together to identify and manage the risks of which ever energy sources are exploited here at home. The UK has led on such approaches internationally in relation to revenue transparency in the extractive sectors (the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative currently chaired by Claire Short and which now has 48 member countries) and also in relation to the use of public and private security forces (the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights which the UK currently chairs). Why not a multi-stakeholder approach relating to energy exploration here at home? This might, just might, ensure that that communities can give informed consent to whatever comes next energy wise.