One of the minor problems with fracking is that very word encourages witless wordplay on the part of lazy hacks. Nevertheless, there’s no avoiding it – in selling its shale gas policy to the public, the Government has, ahem, messed-up good and proper.
Matthew Lynn introduces the basic problem in an excellent piece for the Telegraph:
“…anywhere a drill is actually about to be sunk into the ground, the fracking companies face fierce opposition. Environmental groups are whipping up hysterical campaigns against the explorers, staging round the clock protests, and often making it impossible for the drilling to go ahead.”
Unfortunately ministers have only made things worse:
“The response so far from the Government has been ridiculous – and makes a mockery of its attempt to create a UK industry. It has done nothing more than offer a few minor bribes, and the occasional lecture about supporting the national interest. It hasn’t started handing out free lollipops to villagers who allow the fracking companies in, but that is probably next on the list. Not surprisingly, people are not persuaded.”
There is, says Lynn, a better way:
“One reason the industry has developed so fast in the US is that under American law the oil and gas is owned by the people under whose land it is discovered. If a developer finds it under your property, you make a fortune. In this country, you only own the first few feet, which isn’t any use – the shale gas is a lot deeper than that.
“The rest of the mineral rights are owned by the Government, which then licenses them out to developers.”
This leaves host communities with “all of the costs of development” and “practically none of the benefits” – which means that the locals are about as well disposed to fracking as the average landless peasant was to the Enclosure Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Except this is the 21st century and, though deprived of below-ground property rights, people have other rights, such as free assembly and the vote.
Why not work with local interests, instead of against them?
The answer is that UK governments prefer to work with lobbyists – making furtive legal and regulatory changes in the hope of ignoring public opinion. For instance, the Infrastructure Bill contains a tweak to the trespass laws – designed to deprive you of what little control you might have over what happens beneath your land.
Conservative ministers might be hoping to placate angry locals by taking a tougher stance against wind farms. The flaw in this strategy is that wind energy is more popular with the public than fracking. More recent polling, reported by Bloomberg, reveals that voters are more likely to be turned off than on by anti-wind policies – the gap being largest in the most marginal constituencies.
One might object that these voters don’t know that they’re talking about – and that, after the initial lorry movements, a fracking site is a less intrusive presence in the landscape than most wind farms. This may be true, but by combining support for fracking with an anti-green stance, ministers have re-enforced the impression that fracking represents a threat to the local and global environment, when they should have been emphasising the environmental benefits of replacing coal with shale gas.
Furthermore, by deciding to indulge the anti-wind lobby, ministers have given fresh hope to anti-frackers – not to mention those opposing the construction of much needed new housing and infrastructure. Indeed, the message being sent out is almost wilfully perverse: yes, we’ll disempower and disrespect you, but at the same time, there’s a chance that we’ll suddenly cave-in, should Downing Street succumb to one of its periodic tizzies.
Of course, governments are always making a hash of their policies. But in this context, they’re messing-up in multiple and complex ways that really take some doing. One almost has to salute the genius that can stir-up the deep greens while simultaneously (and literally) undermining the property rights held so dear by core Conservative voters.