THERESA MAY’S proposal to bribe local residents to let giant corporations drill for shale gas under their homes is even more regressive than her predecessor’s approach to this controversial industry.
David Cameron was famously “all out for shale,” and his government bent over backwards to accommodate fracking, demanding that ministers overrule local democracy to approve bids and intervene when councils took too long pondering the pros and cons.
George Osborne too was a fan, writing to Cabinet members telling them to make fast-tracking fracking a “personal priority” and unashamedly passing on “asks” direct from energy firm Cuadrilla for immediate action.
Their enthusiasm was not tempered by mounting evidence that hydraulic fracturing — the injection of a high-pressure toxic cocktail of water, sand and chemicals into shale, shattering the rock and releasing natural gas or oil — has serious downsides.
It can cause earth tremors, and indeed earthquakes near Blackpool in 2011 forced Cuadrilla to suspend its fracking operations there.
The carcinogenic chemical mix can leak into underground aquifers which supply water for washing and drinking.
Incidents such as that at the town of Pavillion in Wyoming in the United States, where fracking is most widespread, show that the pollution of local water supplies constitutes a significant health risk.
And that’s coupled with the wider environmental impact of creating an entirely new fossil fuel burning industry.
That’s why Parliament’s cross-party environmental audit committee called for a moratorium on the practice at the beginning of last year, citing “huge uncertainties around the impact … on water supplies, air quality and public health” and deploring the “profoundly undemocratic” way the then Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was seeking to change trespass laws to facilitate the practice.
As the committee also noted, pushing ahead with fracking also makes a mockery of our government’s supposed commitment to combat global warming.
Rising sea levels, an increase in extreme weather events and ever more serious droughts are a clear and present danger in much of the world already — as Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles sought to remind us all with the ending of his Olympic opening ceremony at Rio on Friday, where the stark and simple warnings on rising emissions marked an eloquent reproach from the poor countries of the world to the rich.
Unfortunately, May, like Cameron, seems to see our climate change responsibilities in much the same light as they do our treaty obligation to nuclear disarmament — a piety to be intoned every couple of years rather than a commitment which might be taken into account when setting policy.
The only question she asks about fracking is how resistance to it can be bought off. Here, Osborne’s “shale wealth fund” set aside tax revenues from the industry for investment locally.
This didn’t nullify the health risks or neutralise the environmental impact. Nor was it making the firms who profit from this destructive process pay any more towards mitigating the impact, since it comprised transferring 10 per cent of the taxes they’d be paying anyway rather than levying more.
At least, however, a community fund might be used to rectify some of the worst impact of the drilling. But as shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner says, May’s plan to hand cash directly to affected households is “an incentive to do the wrong thing … properly called a bribe” which will “set neighbour against neighbour.”
Labour “maverick” Frank Field praises this wheeze by comparing it to Thatcher’s mass council house sell-off. The comparison is too close for comfort.
As with right to buy, the promise of a temporary windfall is being used to undermine something that belongs to us all — in this case the ground we stand on, the water we drink and the air we breathe. Future generations will only be impoverished by this madness.