Debating shale gas

Today’s story in the Sunday Times says that CPRE is “poised to throw itself into the controversy over fracking with the launch of a national programme of town-hall meetings” is a little overblown.

Our policy position on shale gas states that CPRE “does not oppose the exploitation of shale gas in principle provided it meets certain conditions”.  But then it sets conditions that have certainly not yet been met, and may never be.

“Our primary aim is to ensure that the location and operation of shale gas sites do not harm the beauty and tranquillity of the English countryside.  We are also concerned to ensure that the natural resources of the countryside, especially water, are not polluted or used unsustainably; and that it can be demonstrated how the exploitation of shale gas contributes towards meeting our climate change commitments consistent with established Government policy, for example by substituting for unabated coal use.  CPRE will oppose proposals which fail to meet these conditions.”

The case that fracking can be carried out in ways that do not harm the countryside or our climate change commitments has not yet been made, which is why we have been very critical of Ministers for assuming that it is a done deal, and that the only role planning authorities have is to wave through in return for cash.

But CPRE has always considered how developments can be accommodated, if they must be.  This approach characterises our position on housing, where CPRE branches sometimes attract the ire of local protest groups by supporting or working to improve housing schemes, rather than opposing them outright.  It has characterised our position on HS2, to the fury of some readers of this blog.  For 80 years it has characterised our work on pylons and overhead lines.

So it is with wind turbines.  About 18 months ago we hosted a seminar on our report, Generating light on landscape impacts.  This brought together enthusiasts and sceptics, from Renewables UK and Greenpeace, to the John Muir Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, and we found some common ground.  Before the seminar I had assumed that the various protagonists got together from time to time to discuss their positions, but it turned out that many of the people in the room had never talked to each other or listened to the other side’s position.

Could something similar be achieved on fracking?  And could it be achieved in areas where fracking is a real prospect, and where tempers are already high?  CPRE’s board considered this last month and said staff should consider promoting local debates on the pros and cons of shale gas exploration, providing we could find a respected partner, such as the Royal Society, and provided any debates were not funded in any way “by organisations with a vested interest” (to quote the draft board minute).

So we are rather a long way from launching a national series of ‘town hall meetings’.  Before we hold a single meeting we will have to form a partnership with a body such as the Royal Society; establish whether CPRE branches in the middle of local battles want to debate, rather than campaign; get sponsorship from a disinterested party; and confirm that there is a genuine planning process and that decisions have not already been made.  Ministerial statements from the PM down are not reassuring on this last point.

From what I have read I think there is still a debate to be had on fracking, both as regards its likely impact on reducing carbon and its impact on the countryside.  There is certainly a good deal of concern and uncertainty about the impact that fracking will have on the countryside – a few hidden pads that no one will notice if you believe some in the industry; huge damage if you believe the critics, who have some pretty alarming examples from the USA to support their arguments.  It would be good to have a calm discussion to explore the evidence.  But whether there is the space for such a debate is another matter.

3 Responses to “Debating shale gas”

  1. 1 A F Crampin January 22, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    We’ll at least somebody should be saying “Hear, hear” to this piece, so I will say it.

  2. 3 Alex Hills March 22, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    I have been doing research into Hydrogen power recently and there have been some major advances in recent years. Hydrogen provides a viable alternative too shale gas and Fracking. I 100% support the CPRE position on Shale gas and Fracking but it would not hurt to point out there is a alternative. We must not be scared to look at the economic arguments for and against any power generation method. When doing this it is important to look at the whole life cost financially and environmentally.

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