Fracking and the precautionary principle

Seldom a week goes by without CPRE being asked to sign a joint letter to a newspaper or Minister. Often we agree, but not always. Our not signing a letter has never before, as far as I can recall, been a story. But today’s Times carries a story with the dramatic headline: ‘Green lobby splits in fight against fracking.’

Everyone seems to like a good split, but I am afraid news of this ‘split’ is rather exaggerated. Here’s why.   

Last week we considered signing a joint letter to the Prime Minister on fracking from Greenpeace, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trusts and others. The letter focussed on the property rights of homeowners, and we decided not to sign. We are not against property rights – CPRE is rarely seen as a revolutionary organisation – but our approach to land use is shaped by our support for a democratic planning system that determines how best to use land in the public interest (which may, on occasion, override the private interests of property owners).

We also have a well thought-out policy position on shale gas which states that we are not against fracking in principle, provided certain (fairly exacting) conditions can be met. These relate mainly to its impact on countryside character and tranquillity; whether it helps the UK meet our climate change commitments; and whether fracking is compatible with the sustainable use of water and other natural resources.

Fracking is a complex issue – most issues are – and it is not sensible to expect even likeminded organisations to approach complex issues in identical ways. Environmental groups – including the National Trust, the other ‘splitters’ in this instance – are generally on the same side, but we have unique aims, structures and philosophies. If we did not, we would have merged long ago.

All that said, CPRE is becoming increasingly concerned about fracking, and in particular the gung-ho way in which Ministers are approaching the issue. A far bigger story than our reluctance to sign this particular letter is the concerns raised by the Government’s own consultation on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) for Further Onshore Oil and Gas Licencing. CPRE’s detailed response includes the following concerns that raise serious doubts about Ministers’ apparent belief that fracking is a done deal and all environmental concerns groundless.

  • A very broad range of assumptions underpins the scenarios in the consultation, from ‘low activity’ to ‘high activity’, or even within one of the scenarios. For example, the total water consumption associated with hydraulic fracturing under the high activity scenario could be between 57.6 million to 144 million cubic metres. The likely duration of vehicle movements in the production development stage is 32 to 73 weeks for the low activity scenario and 73 to 145 weeks for the high activity scenario – a huge range. It is unclear how the large ranges in some of the assumptions within the scenarios have been dealt with in terms of assessing and scoring the effects of the draft Licensing Plan and the reasonable alternatives.
  • Much has been made of the potential benefit to communities of a 1% share of the revenue from each well – but given the uncertainties, and the fact that production from some wells is likely to tail off quite quickly, some communities are likely to get scant compensation for massive disruption.
  • But some pads are likely to productive for years. The height of a drilling rig is about that of a medium-sized wind turbine, a distinctive feature in the landscape, particularly at night when it is well lit. The temporary nature of the drilling and associated equipment is often emphasised, but it is worth noting that, in the UK, it is quite likely that 50 to 60 wells could be drilled from a single pad, meaning that such a pad could be working round the clock for a years. So for a community affected by such a pad, its effect on tranquillity would be significant.
  • The estimate for full time equivalent jobs (including indirect and induced jobs) under the high activity scenario ranges from 16,000 to 32,000. But the Prime Minister and other senior politicians regularly quote the Institute of Directors’ estimate of 74,000 jobs in fracking. That sounds better, but on the basis of the SEA it does not seem plausible.

And so on. It is clear from the SEA consultation that we do not know nearly enough about the potential environmental impacts, and the proposed approach – which pays little or no regard to the precautionary principle – gives insufficient protection to the countryside and wider environment. All environmental groups are united in saying that the Government’s approach to fracking should respect the precautionary principle and properly safeguard the environment. There is little sign so far that Ministers are listening. I hope that the Government’s response to the SEA consultation will indicate a greater willingness to consider the evidence.

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