The campaign against fracking the UK is building on all fronts, including the legal one. Greenpeace is encouraging actions for trespass against the companies like Cuadrilla. But will they be enough to bring a halt to shale gas exploration?
Unlike in France, where the constitutional court this week upheld a government ban on fracking introduced in 2011, the UK state is heavily committed to the dash for gas.
Planning laws and new technical guidance introduced in the summer are heavily weighted in favour of applications to frack.
For example, the guidelines state: “Mineral extraction is essential to local and national economies. As stated in paragraph 144 of the National Planning Policy Framework, minerals planning authorities should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy, when determining planning applications.” [emphasis added] The guideline say:
- Planning applications for exploration of shale gas should not take account of “hypothetical future activities” – actual extraction.
- Planning authorities should not consider demand for, or alternatives to, oil and gas when determining applications.
- Councils should understand that government policy is clear that energy supplies should come from a variety of sources.
- Planning authorities should give great weight to the “benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy
Jon Gateley, principal planner at property firm Savills, told Planning magazine that the guidance was akin to a presumption in favour of shale gas. "Rather than just introducing controls over how decisions would be made, the guidance implies that government wants to see them go through," he said.
As the hot summer rolled on into September, the government stepped in again with plans to change the current notification requirements on underground gas and oil applications to make it easier for the corporations, naturally.
At present, companies have to serve a notice on any other person who owns or is a tenant of land to which the application relates. They also have to publish a notice in at least one local newspaper and display a notice in every parish affected ahead of submission.
But under the draft proposals, the requirement to serve notice on individual owners and tenants of land would be dropped where solely underground operations would be involved.
Enter Greenpeace. They are assembling home owners to mount a legal challenge to prevent fracking companies drilling underneath the homes of people who don’t want it. The campaign group says that such drilling would amount to trespass and be illegal.
“This is about people asserting their legal and democratic right,” said Anna Jones, senior campaigner with Greenpeace. They’ve launched a website wrongmove.org where homeowners can find out, using their postcode, whether they are living near a potential fracking operation.
While under English law, mineral rights beneath the surface belong to the state, Greenpeace argues that companies will still need permission from landowners. Lancashire dairy farmer Andrew Pemberton has joined the legal action. “My biggest worry is pollutants,” he said. Water supplied that feed his animals come from aquifers beneath the Lancashire Fylde.
But as Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, pointed out yesterday, the state is heavily committed to fracking. She was actually speaking outside court, where she pleaded not guilty to alleged offences following her arrest outside the Cuadrilla site in Balcombe in the summer.
She said: "The government is not only refusing to listen to the evidence, it is choosing to become a flag-waver-in-chief for the fracking industry, offering them generous tax breaks as well as allowing them senior roles within the government itself.”
Among those she was referring to is Lord Browne, a former BP boss, who is now holding a cross-departmental role in government, reporting to the minister for the Cabinet Office, at the same as he holds significant shares in Cuadrilla. Coincidentally, the minister concerned, Francis Maude includes Balcombe in his constituency.
You have to conclude that it will take more than local legal challenges to halt fracking. And it will also take more than a change of government, as rebranded One Nation Labour is totally silent on the issue, leading campaigners to suspect Ed Miliband’s party has fallen for discredited “cheap energy” claims. We will have to put fracking capitalism on the agenda.