This post is based on a paper that I co-authored with Manuel Fischer and Karin Ingold: Cairney Fischer Ingold fracking in the UK for Zurich workshop 23 Jan 2015 (updated version: Weible et al book UK Chapter Cairney et al (including tables and appendix) 2016). See also a draft Fracking UK timeline
The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country’. Chancellor George Osborne also wrote a detailed letter to ministers asking them to make policy implementation a ‘personal priority.’
For the UK Government, fracking has three main benefits: ‘energy security, decarbonisation and economic growth’. It has shown clear support for test drilling to assess the economic feasibility of fracking. It has reinforced this support with a range of policies:
- tax breaks to encourage capital investment;
- a ‘sovereign wealth fund’ to encourage private investment and public support;
- to reach an agreed fee with industry, and a share of tax revenue, to compensate local areas; planning guidance for England which seems to favour fracking development;
- an emphasis on what has come to be known as ‘sound science’, or an approach to fracking based on the evidence of low risk when operators meet or exceed regulatory expectations identified by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering; and,
- miscellaneous supporting policies, including tracking data on public attitudes to energy, and the rules used by police forces to manage protests and gather intelligence on protesters.
Yet, in two crucial ways, it has not gone all out for shale. First, it is part of a loose coalition of organisations which, ‘on average’, is tentatively pro-fracking. The coalition includes UK government bodies; government agencies monitoring adherence to regulations; the three main UK political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (at least while in coalition government); the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the House of Commons, currently with a government majority; private energy companies (Cuadrilla, IGas Energy, Centrica, Total, Shell, National Grid) and industry groups (United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, Oil & Gas UK, Chemical Industries Association; the NGO, No Hot Air; and, groups generating and sharing research: Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Geological Survey, CNG Services, Geological Society, Policy Exchange. The common element to this coalition is a wish to approve test drills, to get a better sense of the economic potential of shale gas (which only depends partly on production potential – note the currently low oil and gas prices), and support extensive regulation. Only some members of this coalition favour the ‘all out’ strategy. This coalition competes with an anti-fracking coalition which, while much smaller number, has a less equivocal political position. It includes the Green Party, NGOs such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Frack off, Friends of the Earth, and WWF UK, and, a research group, Tyndall Centre Manchester.
Second, it has not taken a centralist approach to energy security. Instead, it shares power across several levels of government. It has overall responsibility for energy policy, and retains ownership of mineral and gas resources, but has not centralised many aspects of fracking policy which are made by: devolved governments, responsible for developing national planning guidelines (Scotland will also soon receive powers on licensing); local authorities charged with granting planning permission for individual drilling sites; and public bodies responsible for ensuring environmental protection and health and safety. It also shares responsibility for environmental policy with the European Union. The UK has taken responsibility for strategic issues, related to energy security, the generation of evidence to address the economic viability and environmental uncertainty regarding fracking, the tax and incentives regime, and the UK-wide system granting energy companies the right to operate to extract minerals, but not the decision to approve drill sites in local areas. This is reflected in its rather convoluted ‘roadmap’ for private companies, which involves at least 15 steps and interaction with government and a large number of public bodies, culminating in the need to satisfy local authorities that they should drill in their area (public bodies, such as environment agencies also implement a complex mix of EU, UK and devolved regulations).
Currently, the result is that we don’t quite know what will happen, particularly since devolved and local governments are much more hesitant to approve actual development in their areas. The UK government may be ostensibly ‘all out for shale’, but this is not reflected in key decisions on the ground.
On this basis, we could expect one of three things. First, as events proceed and local areas begin to make decisions on individual sites, the anti-fracking coalition may swell, to reflect a growth in opposition or the decision of local authorities to reject planning applications. This is particularly likely if incidents such as tremors/ earthquakes should happen again close to test drilling sites. Second, the majority coalition may swell, but change further, to reflect an important degree of hesitant and prudent pro-fracking attitudes that are not sufficient to produce commercial fracking. Or, third, the majority coalition becomes more in favor of fracking, perhaps following the development of test drills and the gathering of evidence that suggests that regulations are sufficient and the commercial potential of shale gas is more certain. The latter outcome is by no means certain.