Fracking and local communities

Written by Dr Katy Wright

The current debates and protests about the issue of ‘fracking’ – shale gas extraction – in the south of England and elsewhere touch upon a number of the themes we are exploring in our SLED research project . This blog post examines some of the key issues raised by recent events, and provides some related evidence and analysis emerging from our own research.

There is a great deal of debate and concern about the future capacity of our energy infrastructure to meet our energy needs, as well as about the need to develop ‘greener’ and more sustainable forms of energy production to reduce carbon emissions and to try to contribute to tackling climate change. There is little agreement about which forms of energy production are preferable or about how relative advantages and disadvantages compare across different energy industries. Often the debate becomes mired in disagreements over the extent of, or threat posed by, climate change and the need to act to address this. What is clear, however, is that the government plays a key role in shaping the energy market and determining the financial rewards associated with pursuing different forms of energy production. This might be, for example, through tax breaks, incentives or obligations to produce certain amounts of energy from renewable sources.

Public consultation and engagement tends to take place in the localities in which developments will be ‘hosted’, involving those who live locally in the neighbourhood(s) or areas directly affected. New energy infrastructure projects are required to provide ‘community benefit’ to those potentially affected, whether this is in the form of associated developments; the provision of funding for local organisations; or the development of some sort of ‘legacy’ for local people and/or the environment. For example, the proposed Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay (TLSB) development which we are currently researching aims to provide a range of sporting, leisure and educational opportunities centred on the lagoon, as well as providing ongoing funding. HM Treasury has reported that fracking operators will be asked to provide “at least £100,000 of benefits per ‘fracked’ well site during the exploration phase – and no less than one per cent of overall revenues” (HM Treasury News July 19th 2013). Whilst the community benefit elements of the TLSB development have been refined throughout the (ongoing) formal and informal community consultations being carried out before the submission of the planning application, it is notable that there are currently no clear guidelines for good practice in the provision of community benefit, or for evaluating the impact of community benefit schemes. In fact, there has been a great deal of criticism in this area, with many examples being described as “poorly realised” and lacking in “any real or long-term impact” (Docherty 2012).

Consultation with local communities about energy industry infrastructure developments requires people to be able to engage with complex and contested issues regarding environmental (and other) costs and impacts, and the benefits associated with particular forms of energy. We have observed TLSB’s involvement in a wide-ranging programme of events aiming to educate and inform local people in Swansea Bay to enable their meaningful engagement in the consultation process. This has included innovative and imaginative ways of engaging with different groups, and significant efforts put into identifying and approaching them. Alongside this public consultation has been an extensive engagement with experts in relevant fields such as marine biology, shipping, commercial fishing and engineering to inform and shape the development proposal and to produce their Environmental Impact Assessment. What is clear from our research so far is that there is a huge variation in the level of expertise and understanding amongst local people, and significant effort required from the company and its employees to convey relevant information in an accessible and interesting manner. There is little or no monitoring of how this process takes place, meaning that a great deal relies upon the integrity of those involved, and there is a delicate balance to be struck between the need to ‘sell’ the development to local people and to enable them to make an informed decision.

A great deal of rumour, debate and misinformation also occurs regarding different forms of energy production, for example a number of (now discredited) health scares have been associated with wind turbines (e.g. see this report in The Independent). Recent research by YouGov found that over a quarter (26%) of respondents did not know whether or not fracking was a good idea, suggesting that there is a significant lack of understanding in this area. Given this lack of information and understanding, it would seem sensible for the debate about different forms of energy to be widened to the national level, involving developing a clear programme for informing people about energy needs, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of different forms of energy production. Not only might this focus on the relative environmental costs, but also on benefits such as job creation, which is often touted as a beneficial outcome of developments, but is rarely explored in terms of the comparative number of jobs created per MW of energy produced, which is higher for renewable than for other forms of energy production (e.g. see the Copenhagen Climate Council report). It might also be enlightening for there to be greater transparency in terms of government ministers’ or prominent commentators’ interests in energy companies. For example, it transpires that Lord Howell, who recently suggested that fracking could happen in the “desolate North East” (a comment he later apologised for, saying he in fact meant the North West), happens to have financial interests in fracking companies. He is also the father-in-law of George Osborne, who has recently cut taxes on fracking by 50% . Putting such information more comprehensively in the public domain might itself enable a fairer debate.

According to The Observer, local planning authorities have been told to avoid “considering whether renewable energy plants would be a better fit for their communities” or local preferences for particular forms of energy production, in making their decisions about local energy infrastructure proposals. This is in part due to the government’s aim to have a mix of energy production to meet future needs. However, it means that the ability for ordinary people to get involved at a strategic level in determining the future development of the energy industry is somewhat limited, and that individual development proposals are to be seen in isolation rather than as part of a wider trajectory. This kind of short-term piecemeal approach does not benefit either renewable or non-renewable energy production as it does not encourage or enable people to engage with long-term aims or contingencies relevant to the energy industry. Whether or not it is considered desirable by the government, it is also clear that consultees in Swansea Bay do in fact compare different forms of energy production in reaching a conclusion about their own opinions. In the case of Swansea Bay, the proposed tidal lagoon is weighed (favourably) in this particular community against the increasingly unpopular wind turbines which have been built nearby, as well as against the proposed Severn Barrage.

The fracking protestors in Balcombe have been written off as “NIMBYs”, a crude and oversimplified term for talking about people’s feelings towards local developments. As Devine-Wright (2011) has pointed out, use of this pejorative term also ignores the symbolic dimensions of place attachment, and, further, the notion that closeness to a development is likely to negatively influence attitudes to that development is not in fact supported by empirical data. Indeed, our research so far in Swansea has shown that a very large majority of local residents consulted to date are very positive towards the proposed tidal lagoon development. They feel that it will positively contribute to their enjoyment of the local area or – at the least – not negatively affect the coast and countryside to which they feel a great sense of attachment. Rather, it is seen as a potential source of pride for local people and something that will “put Swansea on the map”. This is in stark contrast to the palpable antagonism towards the building of wind turbines, which is at least in part due to local people’s feeling that they are aesthetically unappealing. One woman I spoke to, who lived between an open cast mine and a new wind farm, said that the wind turbines had “ruined my valley”. For those who recall the environmental decline of the Swansea Bay area as a result of heavy industry, and the long journey taken to restore the natural environment, the imposition of new infrastructure like wind turbines can seem like a step backwards. Further, there are sometimes associations with historical exploitation of the natural resources of Wales for the benefit of those living elsewhere. As one of our participants explained:

“Coal and water are resources that have benefited Wales in some respects, but through being extracted from the country to go across the border, and that have done damage to the country… I think some people see wind turbines in the same way: using “Windy Wales” to power a lot of houses or factories in England.”

This demonstrates that place-related objections to new developments are highly specific, and cannot simply be disregarded as self-interested or inevitable.

Such issues raised by the recent news and debate around fracking bring to the foreground debates which have been rumbling in the background for some time, but which are arguably becoming more pressing, given concerns about future energy security and the sustainability of energy production in the UK. What seems clear is the need for a more coordinated approach, and for a wider debate about our preferred options for energy production. A number of questions are raised around sustainability, community resilience and public involvement in planning processes, which we will continue to explore through our programme of research.