Cracking under the pressure

The fracking industry’s gaming of our legal processes and the start of fracking in the face of dire warnings from the IPCC threatens to fracture their fragile social licence to operate

There is a certain delicious irony, when considering the debate about hydraulic fracturing in the UK, that the term “fracture strength”, also known as “breaking strength”,  is the stress at which a specimen fails via fracture.

The fracking industry and the government have painstakingly, and expensively, constructed a case to frame their promotion of fracking for shale gas in the UK, but this has come under increasing pressure from different directions and is now visibly cracking under the weight of circumstances. The pressure is building from a variety of different sources that are becoming focused together at exactly the time when the industry least wanted it – the week in which they started fracking.

Firstly we have the attacks that the industry has made on our right to protest. The injunctions that have been brought (or should that be “bought”?), with varying degrees of success, have offended the sense of fair play of the British people. We British are a proud, decent and essentially liberal nation even if our national identity is currently being put through the mangle during the machinations that surround Brexit. Writing in his book “The English National Character”,  Peter Mandler noted that “A 1996 survey asked people what were ‘the most important components of identity’: the most common answer was ‘my principles and values’ (66%)

We British can recognise something that attacks our fundamental set of values at 100 paces and these attacks have not been subtle. UKOG even attempted to include those who ‘encourage’ protest against fossil fuels within the scope of their injunction, which would have made even the act of writing this article a contempt of court punishable by imprisonment. Cuadrilla and Ineos have also brought injunctions that similarly up the stakes for all protesters. Even existing law has been pressed into use, with 4 peaceful protesters having been charged with “public nuisance” and 3 of them handed jail terms of 15 and 16 months for sitting on top of lorries and halting their progress near a fracking site. An appeal court was deciding whether those sentences were appropriate or fair as I started writing this article and has just decided that this sentencing was “manifestly excessive”. The jail terms have been reduced to conditional discharges, but the sour taste that this incident has left will remain in our mouths for a long time. The damage that it has done to our trust in the judiciary and to the reputation of Cuadrilla, whose chief executive, Francis Egan, had described the sentencing as “the correct decision”, is immense.

What is certain is that by attacking our rights, gaming our legal system, and offending our innate sense of fair play and decency, the fracking companies have made a serious misjudgement. They know that they cannot hope to get their industry to scale without public support, but in the face of growing opposition they have resorted to a series of aggressive attacks on some of the most essential components of our national identity. This desperate behaviour has only pushed the elusive social licence to operate still further from their grasp. Put simply the fracking industry and its allies are out of step with the fundamental values of this country and the more they try to crush dissent the greater this disconnection becomes.

Secondly, but equally importantly, the industry has had the misfortune to start fracking in Lancashire at exactly the point when the existential threat presented to us by the climate crisis has been brought to the attention of the man in the street in the starkest possible terms.

The IPCC have told us that we have just 12 years in which to take action if we are to avoid the awful impacts of a temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees. Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts, told us “This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency”. Unlike previous warnings this one does indeed seem to have captured the imagination of the public, and amplified by the commentary of eminent climate scientist James Hansen, the dissonant contrast with the emergence of fracking in the UK has started to wake people up to the contradictions which underlie the government’s climate policy.

As Energy Minister, Claire Perry, bleats on about a Green Great Britain and asks “why would you want to import gas when you could create your own?” the man in the street is wising up to the fact that Climate Change is not a local issue and that, unless you can guarantee that the imported gas you displace with an indigenous supply is not burned somewhere else, then your new domestic supply source is a part of the problem and not a solution to it. The answer to her question is therefore rather simple, but it is probably not the one she either wants or expects.

So opposition to fracking is brewing into the perfect storm just as the industry attempts to take its first tentative steps towards imposing a fracking industry at scale onto an unwilling population. This population, in which twice as many already opposed fracking as supported it, is seeing, with ever increasing clarity, that fracking is anathema. At the very same time that fracking attacks some of the essential components of our sense of national identity, it is also being revealed to be a part of the existential threat that puts our continued survival on the planet we call home at risk.

This confluence of circumstances presents a massive threat to the ability of the fracking companies to expand their project here in the UK so we can expect both the industry and the government to kick back strongly with a combination of financial inducements and attacks via their usual astroturf proxies.

It remains to be seen whether, now the population is getting “woke” they will remain that way. However, the evidence suggests that concern for climate change is now suddenly becoming mainstream and the widespread appalled reaction to the injustice perpetrated on the Frack Free Three demonstrates that they will not accept the industry’s bullying tactics.  I doubt Cuadrilla could have chosen a worse week to start fracking again.

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