The fracking industry, UK energy policy and sustainable solutions

Feature by Emily Masters

I think fracking is entirely the wrong direction for UK energy policy, and I feel that if we act now we can prevent the establishment of a fracking industry in this country,’ Laura Bannister said.


ImageBannister is a European election candidate from Manchester and Salford, an area currently being exploratory drilled for natural gas. She has been a member of the North West Green Party since 2009 and considers her personal specialism to be economics. Bannister spoke with Peace News via email about the politics of natural gas, sustainable energy and activism in the United Kingdom.


Peace News: What stage is the UK natural gas industry at right now? Who are the major industry players and what are they up to?


Laura Bannister: In the UK we have already used up a lot of the natural gas that is easy to reach. The industry is now hoping to extract the last dregs of gas, which is locked up as tiny bubbles in a kind of rock called shale. There are large areas of shale rock in this country, especially in the north and a few large areas near the south coast, so hundreds of thousands of people may soon be fighting against fracking developments near their homes.


This gas is difficult to extract – to get at it, it is necessary to shatter the rock with high-pressure water and chemicals, in the process known as ‘hydraulic fracturing’ or ‘fracking’. This is a new form of gas extraction for the UK, and it is in its very early stages. The main activity at the moment is the drilling of exploratory wells thousands of metres into the ground to find out what is down there. If the companies find what they are looking for, they hope to develop this into a large-scale industry with hundreds or even thousands of wells.


Over a dozen large companies may get involved in the fracking industry if we allow it to develop, but the major players so far have been Cuadrilla and IGas, two corporations that have been the subject of extensive protest over their recent drilling operations. These are private companies, so the purpose of extracting the gas will be to sell it on the global energy market to the highest bidder – the aim of fracking is unfortunately NOT to bring down energy prices for people in the UK.


PN: How have national politics and local politics interacted on the issue of fracking?


LB: Local councils usually have control over who builds what in their area, through the town planning process. However, the current government is so keen to allow the fracking industry to develop that they are intervening in this process in various ways, including restricting the powers of local authorities to turn down applications for fracking, and providing financial incentives for them to be allowed.


In the world of real politics, however, people have been coming together to take back control over what happens in their cities and countryside. There have been major political protests, including longstanding protest camps and daily peaceful demonstrations, at two exploratory fracking sites at Balcombe in Essex and at Barton Moss in Greater Manchester. These have helped to keep the wider public informed of the industry’s plans and activities, and have helped to shift public opinion increasingly against fracking in this country.


PN: Can you comment on the local government incentive program the national government has offered?


LB: The incentive program is an attempt to persuade otherwise reluctant local communities to accept fracking in their local area. While it is absolutely right that people benefit from any sale of their own natural resources, that is not what is happening here. This is not people being given a significant share of the profits by the fracking companies; instead, the government is choosing to hand over resources from the general public purse, which could otherwise be spent on public services for the benefit of all, in order to pressurise people into accepting a controversial activity that they might otherwise object to.


PN: What does the current UK energy economy look like? What do you think the future trends will be?


LB: The UK currently imports a lot of its energy, and – as fracked gas would be sold on international energy markets – it is likely that we would continue to do so even if we did allow a fracking industry to develop. This industry is not aiming to make the UK self-sufficient in energy.


However, it is extremely important that we have reliable and affordable energy in this country, and there are many excellent proposals for how this could be done using renewable energy sources. Through a combination of improving how we use energy and building new capacity to generate it, we could power the UK entirely with renewable energy produced here on our land and in the seas that surround us. This is the trend in energy production that we hope to pursue.


At the moment, most energy in the UK comes from fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. As these get used up and become more difficult to extract they tend to get more and more expensive over time. By contrast, renewable energy sources like the wind, sun, waves and tides will never become scarce, and as we develop better and better technology to harvest them these sources of energy are likely to become cheaper over time. Therefore it makes long-term sense for our energy economy to press ahead with renewables right away, and leave behind these short-term diversions into hard-to-extract fossil fuels.


PN: How have energy politics impacted people from different socio-economic backgrounds?


LB: We all need energy to live, so energy prices and the energy industry affect everyone. However, people on low incomes spend a much greater proportion of their money on energy, so when costs increase it is these people that suffer the most. People on low incomes also often live in poor-quality housing where the heat they pay for simply leaks away through the walls and windows, making bills even more expensive. While homeowners can choose to insulate their homes, people that rent don’t have the option of doing this, so are stuck paying excessive bills and often still living in cold homes.


We need a decent long-term solution to this problem, including a mass program to insulate homes – especially rented ones – and a proper strategy to keep energy bills manageable in the long-term. This means developing sourcing of energy that will become cheaper, rather than more expensive, over time, and also means we need to look at sharing the profits of energy production as widely as possible, for instance through shared or public ownership of our energy infrastructure, to make sure that we don't allow a small elite of people to profit from the unreasonably high energy bills paid by many low-income people.


PN: I've read that you've been involved in some of the protests going on in Barton Moss – is that correct? If so, can you tell me about your actions and what your motivations were?


LB: Alongside hundreds of other local people, activists and Green Party members, I have taken part in protests at Barton Moss in Salford, where IGas are drilling an exploratory well. There is a fantastic protest camp there, with many people like me visiting regularly to help out with the daily protests. Most days the company try to bring in a line of trucks carrying equipment, so as well as regular protest marches, letters to politicians, public meetings, awareness-raising through the media and a range of other strategies, the main daily protest action on the ground has been to walk slowly in front of these trucks or force them to stop entirely by placing ourselves in the way.


This is a long-standing and well-recognised method of peaceful protest that aims to hinder progress on the drilling site and to raise public awareness of what’s going on. However, like over a hundred others, I have been arrested while walking slowly in front of trucks and am currently awaiting trial for obstruction of the public highway. Contempt of court laws prevent me from discussing the details in advance of my court case, but I can say that I was motivated to get involved at Barton Moss because I think fracking is entirely the wrong direction for UK energy policy, and I feel that if we act now we can prevent the establishment of a fracking industry in this country. The ruling political parties did not tell us at the last election that they planned to support fracking, so we as a people have not been given the opportunity to vote on whether we want this or not. As these more traditional democratic avenues have been closed, we have needed to show our opposition in other ways.


I think the protests at Balcombe and Barton Moss have done a fantastic job in raising awareness of this issue and informing the public of what is being proposed for their cities and countryside. The companies involved and the government did very little in advance of these protests to let people know what was coming or to consult them as to whether they were happy to allow it. This is our country and we are supposed to have the right to decide what happens here – these protests have been an attempt to take back that control, and to open up the debate about fracking to everyone that would be affected by it.

See more of: Interview