Chris Redston: Is the Government losing the argument over fracking?

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A NATIONWIDE survey conducted this month by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showed that support for fracking has fallen to the lowest level ever recorded, with only 21 per cent now supporting it. A recent poll in The Yorkshire Post, meanwhile, showed 86 per cent against fracking and only 14 per cent in favour.

Environment Secretary Amber Rudd’s recent announcement on the future of the shale gas industry suggests that the Government has realised it will never convince the public that fracking can be ‘safe and sustainable’. Instead, Ms Rudd is ordering councils to fast-track fracking “if planners are perceived to be obstructive”, for example by listening to the legitimate concerns of local communities – the people who will have to put up with all the noise, disruption, traffic, sleepless nights, drop in property values, health problems and pollution risks that have blighted communities near fracking sites all over the world.

This cynical attack on local democracy is in stark contrast to the Government’s post-election promise to allow local communities the right to veto plans for wind energy projects. However, if a local community opposes fracking – as was the case in Lancashire last month – the Government is now practically ordering councils to approve the applications and threatening to grant permission centrally if they don’t play ball. So much for David Cameron’s Big Society.

Ms Rudd’s claim that shale gas can be part of a ‘green energy revolution’ is an astonishing example of Orwellian double-speak, given the scientific consensus that we need to leave about 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid devastating climate change. While gas-powered power stations produce less CO2 than coal-fired stations, studies in the USA show that the increase in methane leaks that arise from shale gas extraction more than offsets any net climate gain in reduced carbon emissions.

Ms Rudd also claims that opening up our countryside to widespread fracking would create “60,000 jobs”, without saying how many thousands of fracking wells would need to be drilled in order to create them.

However, numerous studies have shown that investing in renewable energy creates far more jobs than investing in fossil fuels. For example, a study by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), taking data from the USA, Europe and China, showed that new renewable energy projects create 10 times more jobs than similar-sized fossil-fuel investments.

Renewable energy is also far more popular with the public than fracking. April’s DECC survey found that 81 per cent were in favour of solar, 73 per cent in favour of offshore wind and 65 per cent in favour of onshore wind. Strangely, these questions were left out of the latest survey.

Despite the popularity and obvious benefits of renewables, the Government continues to subsidise the fossil fuel industry to the tune of £400 per person every year, according to latest IMF figures. In stark contrast, renewables only cost £70 per person.

Since the election, the Government has removed subsidies for onshore wind power, and plans to remove subsidies for mid-range solar power projects, while admitting this will only save ‘hardworking families’ 50p a year on their electricity bills.

They are also removing the guaranteed level of subsidy for power plants that switch to greener fuels such as biomass, axing the 10-year plan to make all new homes zero-carbon by 2016, changing the vehicle tax system to remove incentives to buy a less polluting car, scrapping ways of helping homeowners insulate their homes, and selling off the Green Investment Bank.

Compare this wide-ranging and ideologically driven attack on the renewable industry to the Government’s laissez-faire stance on fracking. During the Infrastructure Bill debate in January, Ms Rudd promised to ban fracking in all Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and in Source Protection Zones, which provide the country with much of its drinking water.

However, just before the Parliamentary recess, Ms Rudd broke these promises, issuing secondary legislation that will not only allow fracking in SSSIs – of which there are 4,000 in the UK and over 240 in North Yorkshire – but also in any Source Protection Zone, as long as the well is deeper than 1,200m.

The reason given was that these restrictions would have “an adverse effect on the development of the shale gas industry”. Fracking will also be allowed under National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, as long as the well-pads are situated just outside their borders.

Ms Rudd states that we need “an energy system that is fit for the 21st century. One that powers the economy with cutting-edge technology and makes sure Britain reaps the economic benefits of a global clean-energy revolution.” Nobody would argue with that. The tragedy for the country is that the Government is backing the wrong energy system.

Chris Redston is communications director for local campaign group Frack Free Ryedale.