The government's announcement today that fracking will not take place in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty save ‘in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’ is a welcome and sensible move. It may indeed be in the national interest to exploit a new source of energy, but these landscapes are specially protected in the national interest, too.
The government states that countryside ‘adjacent’ to these protected areas will also be covered by the policy. That will be a relief to the residents of Wisborough Green and Kirdford in my constituency, two villages in beautiful countryside close to the South Downs National Park which have faced the prospect of drilling.
Last week West Sussex County Council turned down Celtique Energie's application for exploratory oil and gas drilling that could lead to fracking, becoming the first local authority in England to do so. The Council's Planning Committee said that the company ‘had not demonstrated the site represented the best option compared to other sites, has unsafe highways access and would have an adverse impact on Wisborough Green as a conservation area’.
By choosing a location that would involve heavy lorries passing through a quintessential English village, with its green, pub and cricket pitch, Celtique managed to unite 'greens' who oppose fracking on principle (a principled but probably small element of the local population) with Middle England, who saw an adverse impact on their community and possibly their property prices (a substantial majority).
Traffic was the key issue. Celtique told West Sussex County Council that exploratory drilling would cause less than a 3 per cent increase on traffic movements over nearly six months. But the Council's Highways Department rejected the company's figures, assessing that drilling would actually cause up to two-thirds more heavy traffic for the period.
What residents particularly feared was that the heavy lorries for exploratory drilling could just be the beginning, with no clear end in sight. If oil was found, there would be further drilling, followed by exploitation, probably involving lorries taking the oil off the site unless the find was so great that a pipeline could be built. The government's own Strategic Environmental Assessment for Further Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing said that drilling would mean as many as 51 lorry journeys each day for three years, and that the traffic issues could be ‘more sustained and locally significant’ on communities adjacent to development sites. And there could be more than one well on the same site.
Earlier this year I wrote to Celtique's Chief Executive, Geoff Davies, asking for clarification on lorry movements. I warned him that: ‘In the absence of this information, residents not only fear the worst - significant lorry movements thorough the village for an indefinite period - but also form the impression that you are not being open about what will be involved.’ He didn't reply.
By this stage, local people smelt a very large rat. Indeed, Celtique's community relations were dismal. While failing to provide accurate information to assuage the community's biggest concern, Mr Davies branded West Sussex objectors as ‘selfish and unpatriotic’. Last week he dismissed the County Council's decision as ‘politically motivated’. The oil and gas industry could not have wished for a worse advocate for its earliest fracking applications.
When trust has broken down, it's hard to deal with other fears. There is particular concern in the South Downs about the water used for fracking, both because of short supplies and the effect of any leakage of contaminated water from a well into the chalk aquifer. The Royal Society is confident that the risks can be ‘managed effectively’, and the Government has stressed that regulation will be robust, but when people hear the same minister say that fracking will go ahead even if it shakes rectory walls, they are understandably sceptical.
It hasn't helped that the case for shale was oversold. It was claimed that shale would lower energy prices. Now the Government admits this would not be so. The arguments left are stronger: that shale could help in the quest for energy security, would create jobs and could be more environmentally friendly than burning imported fossil fuels. But the environmental case can't just about carbon: it must also include the impact of onshore exploitation on the countryside. The bigger the effect on energy security and fuel substitution, the bigger the impact on the landscape will be. Conversely, if there's not much exploitable shale in the south, the national case for drilling in this area falls away.
And here's the problem: no-one can say what the scale will be. In May, the British Geological Survey found that, in contrast to the Bowland basin in the North West of England, there was unlikely to be a significant source of shale gas in the Weald. There could be a significant quantity of shale oil, but there is a ‘high degree of uncertainty’ about the figures, and ‘it may be that only limited amounts of shale ... have any potential to produce oil in commercial quantities.’ The then Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, conceded that ‘it’s not as big a number as earlier estimates’, but said that:
‘The study confirms that there is potential, even in southern England, for a significant addition to our home-grown energy supplies .... It is therefore in the national interest to do everything we can to find out how much of this potential can be brought into production, whilst fully protecting the environment, and to put everything in place to ensure it can happen.’
A former Conservative Energy Secretary, Lord Howell, demurred. His comments that fracking should only take place in the ‘desolate north’ were much derided. But the serious points he made about the risks versus the rewards of promoting fracking in the wrong places deserve attention:
‘This is not an argument against doing everything to get commercial fracking started, but it is an argument against starting in the wrong places and with misleading statements about timing and effect. Trying to start in Southern England, and in the Home counties, or in rural and countryside areas anywhere, north or south, is a guarantee of longer delays, higher costs and increased hostility from both green left and countryside right.’
Today's announcement by the government amounts to a tacit admission that Lord Howell had a point. Creating a strong presumption against fracking in our most important countryside is a good start. But other steps need to be taken, too.
First, the industry should be much savvier in its choice of sites. There are a few small oil wells which have operated for years in and around my constituency, without public concern. They are located away from villages, with access for lorries from main roads. Of course, the availability of sites may be constrained since it depends on willing landowners, but routing lorries through village greens is asking for trouble.
Second, the government has made much of the successive tests which fracking applications must pass, as well as the need to protect the need to protect the environment. So where a company fails to assure a planning authority on issues like traffic, as was the case in West Sussex last week, the government must not give the nod and wink to the Planning Inspectorate to reverse the decision on appeal, as they have done with housing. That would gravely undermine community faith in the regulatory process, and send the wrong signal to companies about their choice of sites and operating proposals.
Third, there needs to be better information about what fracking entails, including open and honest information from the industry about issues such as lorry movements. Celtique's contemptuous approach in West Sussex should serve as a training manual for how not to proceed.
It's all too easy to attack those who raise concerns about drilling as NIMBYs. But local people are bound to object to lorries thundering down quiet country lanes and through their village greens. They would for any industrial activity, not just fracking. Wouldn't you? It's not enough bluntly to assert that it's in the national interest to frack, so local objections should be over-ridden. Nor will the promise of a bung to a local council be sufficient compensation for individual property blight.
With Russia's aggression in the news, it's not hard to appreciate the case for increasing our energy security, but the drive for shale has got off to a bad start. West Sussex isn't Texas, as the industry has discovered. With today's announcement the new Energy Minister, Matt Hancock — an undoubted enthusiast for fracking — has demonstrated a subtler approach that better reflects realities in this country. Now the industry needs to get a lot smarter, too.
Nick Herbert is Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs.