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Rising energy costs combined with austerity and declining real incomes means that a growing proportion of ordinary British households are struggling to afford energy bills for heating, cooking and hot water. Britain’s coalition government is using issues of energy affordability, and propaganda about the possibility of power cuts because of insecure energy supplies from overseas, as justification for plans to build a huge number of new gas-fired power stations and to fuel this ‘dash for gas’ by exploiting the UK’s supposedly vast deposits of shale gas. An official study of the Bowland Shale in Northern England, the UK’s most geologically-promising area for shale gas, increased estimates of resources to over 37 trillion cubic metresi.
The UK government is claiming that shale gas will cut energy bills. However, these claims are rejected by a number of experts, including renowned climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern who dismissed the government’s claims as “baseless economics”.
Strong links exist between the UK fracking industry and the government. Lord John Browne, former CEO of British Petroleum (BP) and now chairman of shale gas drilling company Cuadrilla, is a Non-Executive Director of the Cabinet Office in the heart of government, and Lord David Howell, president of oil and gas lobbyists the British Institute for Energy Economics, is father-in-law of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the Head of the UK Treasury), George Osborne, and a former advisor on energy to Foreign Secretary, William Hague. The government’s determination to encourage fracking has included proposing tax breaks that the industry says it doesn’t need, such as cutting the tax on income generated from shale gas from 62 per cent to 30 per cent, making these the world’s most generous incentives for shale gas.
Community opposition is springing up wherever fracking is proposed. The biggest protests around shale gas prospecting have taken place in Balcombe, 50km south of London, in one of the most prosperous areas of the UK. Local people, supported by campaigners from all over the country, blocked access to the drilling site by drilling company Cuadrilla for weeks until the police finally removed them, with dozens arrested.
Other hotspots of local opposition include Lancashire in north-west England (where Cuadrilla’s test fracking in 2011 triggered earthquakes), south Wales, Fermanagh on the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and Airth in central Scotland, the site of a huge proposal for coal bed methane extraction from Australian drillers Dart Energy. The number of communities threatened could grow next year, when the government plans to open up most of the rest of England, and large areas of Wales and Scotland for licensing which would allow fracking.
Local communities are understandably highly concerned by threats to their local environment and their health, from water contamination, air pollution and increased traffic and noise. There is also growing understanding of the connections between local struggles and broader energy and climate change arguments. One community group in Lancashire has started working with local schools to get solar panels put on school roofs.
Friends of the Earth England, Wales & Northern Ireland and Friends of the Earth Scotland are supporting local community groups and climate campaigners and activists, providing technical expertise (land-use planning, law and industry regulation) and campaigning advice and training. Together, the growing UK anti-fracking movement has succeeded in slowing the development of the industry in the UK. Despite the government lifting a moratorium on fracking in December 2012, no further test fracking has taken place.