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Fracking: the seismic debate causing political tremors

Fracking: the seismic debate causing political tremors Kirby Misperton Protection Camp

As the debate around fracking continues to reverberate, with the industry this week laying on a desperate, last-ditch attempt to force the government to relax ‘unworkable’ seismicity regulations that it itself helped create, people need reassurance that the government is listening to voices beyond those from the shale gas industry when it comes to its own plans.

Fracking has been vehemently opposed by local communities since drilling began in England back in 2011. And unsurprisingly, a combination of earthquakes, inconsistencies and contradictions around ‘energy security’, and increasing evidence and warnings from leading scientists about climate change, have failed to rally support for the carbon emitting fossil fuel industry. Almost three times as many people now oppose fracking than the number that support it, according to the Government’s own public attitudes survey, published this week.

Despite the legitimate concerns of local communities and their persistent calls to be heard, the Government launched a consultation last year on plans that would fast-track fracking through the planning system. These proposals would effectively mute the concerns of the very communities who would be directly impacted by fracking, in favour of decisions being made over their heads at national level.

These proposals are a perversion of local democracy put forward by a government that claims to champion localism. It is untenable to persist with these fast-track proposals and in doing so support an industry that so clearly does not have a social licence.
So as pressure mounts, it is hardly surprising that two of the largest industry players pulled out the big guns and tried to pressure the government to ease the way for fracking this week by relaxing seismicity regulations. Thankfully they failed. The government has sensibly stated that it will not review these standards. Who really wants to be more vulnerable to ever larger earthquakes?

This desperate attempt to relax regulations – the same regulations that had been touted as a ‘gold standard’ – is a final throw of the dice for an industry out of ideas. We must ignore these threats and remind ourselves of reasons that these regulations exist in the first place – to protect the public and our environment.

But in Westminster and in town halls across the country, another kind of earthquake looms – a political one. A growing number of MPs from within the Conservative party are choosing to rebel, turning their backs on the government’s fracking plans, accompanied by fellow opponents across the party divide. At a standing room only fringe event at last year’s Conservative Party Conference, the unease was palpable amongst the party and its members.

MPs with a shale gas shadow looming over their constituencies have been particularly vocal, and for good reason. As part of a hard hitting campaign led by CPRE and other big players in the environmental movement, thousands of constituents wrote to their MPs to urge them to attend debates in parliament, where the government’s stance was attacked from all sides.

The scale of the opposition was demonstrated further when more than 300,000 people signed petitions from CPRE, Friends of the Earth and Sum of Us, calling on Ministers to drop the proposals to fast-track fracking.

The proposals faced even more scrutiny at the local level. Polling commissioned by CPRE and Friends of the Earth found that 80% of Conservative councillors, in areas where fracking companies have a licence to drill and explore for gas, opposed the government’s plans to fast-track fracking, while over 800 councillors signed an open letter calling on government to ‘Let Communities Decide’.

Today’s voters, across all parties, expect a much sterner commitment and stronger leadership from the government on climate change, and will support policies they trust have their concerns at heart. As we wait for a decision from government on its proposals to fast-track fracking, it’s not surprising many a politician is asking - is it really worth it?

A version of this blog appeared in The Times online

People need reassurance that the government is listening to voices beyond those from the shale gas industry.

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