London, UK – Controversial plans to grant energy companies the right to drill under homes without the permission of the homeowner are polarising a debate in the UK about hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” to recover gas and oil from shale rock.
Government proposals aim to remove planning obstacles to exploiting the underground resource, which supporters claim are essential for Britain’s energy security but opponents insist will damage the environment and devastate wildlife habitats.
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The debate is intensifying as the countdown begins for elections next year amid signs of growing nervousness that the measures could backfire among conservative members of the country’s ruling coalition, fresh from a defeat in local polls.
“The Tories have just taken a bruising at the local elections – fracking will only make things worse for Tory MPs in the party’s heartlands at next year’s vote,” said Lawrence Carter, who is a Greenpeace UK climate and energy campaigner.
Amy Newington, a campaigner for the anti-fracking organisation Frack Off, added: “The industry knows that without the law change, residents would deny them permission to drill under their land and homes.”
The plans to allow shale companies to drill under people’s homes were included in the recent Queen’s Speech outlining the government’s legislative agenda.
Britain’s ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition says it will change trespass laws to enable fracking companies to drill without permission, although they would have to pay some compensation to those living above.
Ministers and the shale industry see the move as essential to speeding up access to a resource that new technology now makes possible to exploit cost-effectively.
The plans reflect a strong political commitment by the coalition to fracking based on its success in the US and bolstered by reports suggesting large shale resources in England.
The British Geological Survey has estimated that there are between 2.2 billion and 8.6 billon barrels of shale oil in southern England, and that Lancashire in northwest England could also be home to one of the biggest shale basins in the world, containing 1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas.
The government has suggested that shale gas will bring down winter fuel bills, and has used the crisis in Ukraine to show why the UK must “urgently diversify” energy supplies.
Fracking – the process of drilling into the earth and directing a high-pressure water mixture at rock to release gas – is now pitting leading political and industrial figures against environmentalists, conservationists and communities.
The latest salvo in the debate was fired in a letter to the press signed by 50 geoscientists and petroleum engineers, and organised by a business group funded by gas and shale gas interests, calling on politicians to fast-track the UK shale gas industry, centred in Lancashire.
Professor Richard Selley, a geologist at Imperial College London, and a signatory to the letter, told Al Jazeera that much of the opposition to fracking is ill-informed and while there are risks associated with the process, these can be safely controlled.
“We can learn a lot from the mistakes that have happened in the United States where there were some awful drilling practices going on,” he said. “We now know what’s wrong and we have much safer ways of drilling and fracking than have been used in the past.”
Selley said existing planning rules in the UK have seriously hampered hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and oil, which is essential if the country is to avoid future energy shortages.
“In the US, if you want to get permission to sink an oil or gas well, it normally takes two weeks to clear all the regulatory hurdles – in this country it is between 9 to12 months.”
The UK has been producing onshore oil and gas for over 100 years. The Wytch Farm field in Dorset, discovered 30 years ago, is the largest onshore oilfield in Europe.
But opposition to fracking has grown as organisations have become concerned about what they claim is the risk it poses to the landscape and water supplies, arguing that there is a headlong rush to drill without adequate safeguards.
During the Queen’s Speech, for example, Greenpeace activists protested outside Prime Minister David Cameron’s cottage in Dean, Oxfordshire, by creating a mock “fracking site”.
Frack Off says that more than 130 community groups are now organising to oppose the industry across Britain.
Spokesperson Amy Newington said: “The evidence is there for all to see. In countries like the US and Australia where hundreds of thousands of fracking wells have been drilled, the results have been devastating.
“Beyond the obvious environmental issue of industrialising vast areas of previously rural regions, communities that live in these newly created gas fields are suffering health impacts.”
In March, a coalition of leading wildlife and conservation organisations published a report suggesting fracking has the potential to seriously damage animal and plant habitats.
Our homes are our most valuable asset and the government shouldn't be allowed to ride roughshod over people.
Nik Shelton, a spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which helped compile the report, said: “In this country we treasure our open spaces and wildlife and people don’t really want to see us going headlong into a new era of energy without regard to wildlife.”
An opinion poll commissioned by Greenpeace suggests that three quarters of people in Britain are against changing trespass laws to allow shale gas companies to drill under homes without the permission of the homeowner.
A leading homeowner organisation, the HomeOwners Alliance, is among the groups opposing the latest proposals.
Paula Higgins, the chief executive of HomeOwners Alliance, said: “It’s outrageous that homeowners don’t have a say over who uses and profits from their land.
“Our homes are our most valuable asset and the government shouldn’t be allowed to ride roughshod over people by not only just taking away their property rights but also by not even telling them of planned fracking activity in their area.”
The backlash against fracking is generating nervousness within the Conservative party, mainly because many of the potential sites for drilling will fall in its “true-blue” heartland in southern England, where it performed poorly in recent local elections.
The Greenpeace poll suggested that 73 percent of potential Conservative voters are against the planned changes to trespass laws.
A caucus called “Conservatives Against Fracking” has also been created to ensure there is a voice for an anti-fracking feeling within the party.
Marcus Adams, a Conservative against fracking in the South Downs, has even claimed this could have the same political impact on the party as the poll tax – the disastrous head tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher that dealt a severe blow to Tory support.