Fracking and the price of democracy

How much will fracking cost the people of Britain? The promises of jobs and economic wealth seem increasingly illusory in the face of the real costs already paid by local councils and residents.

All developments involve change and all bring benefits as well as costs which are not evenly distributed. The prospect of financial gain for the companies exploring for shale gas, the promise of new jobs and local prosperity come at a price.

The imbalance in benefits and burdens that are involved in all shale gas developments has already been experienced by local residents in Lancashire even though fracking has not really started yet. They report few benefits but a whole range of adverse health and social impacts such as increased stress, community conflict and an atmosphere of distrust and surveillance that are an effect of the prospect of fracking in the area.

However, the costs of fracking for the local communities are not merely figurative but also quite literally – monetary. The costs that local councils and communities have to incur in order to be able to participate effectively in the planning process raise questions about the price they have to pay just to have a say about fracking; the price they have to pay for democracy.

Let’s take Lancashire as an example. In June 2015, the local county council rejected the planning applications to explore for shale gas at two sites in Lancashire but the gas company – Cuadrilla – lodged an appeal and a public inquiry took place in Blackpool in February and March 2016.

It is believed that Cuadrilla spent millions on the planning and appeal process and the decision-makers have probably been made aware of it. However, we rarely talk about the costs borne in the very same process by the local authorities and communities.

The precise costs are difficult to calculate but a realistic estimate is that Lancashire County Council might have to spend even around half a million to consider those applications. According to the information obtained through a Freedom of Information request, the Lancashire County Council has invoices for £330,000 that it has had to pay just for the organisation of the public inquiry in Blackpool. This includes over £110k for consultants and £116k for security but under-represents the full costs incurred by the council because it excludes officers’ time which would be “highly significant” in the calculation of the total sum. We must also add to this all the costs incurred at earlier stages of the planning process at the council. These are no ordinary costs for a council that closes down libraries and cuts bus services to meet its budget.

Groups of local residents who oppose fracking have also raised over £160k for consultants, legal support and other expenses, which allowed them to participate effectively in the planning process. The final figure would have been much higher if some of the local groups had not secured legal representation pro bono. Additionally, many sympathetic local suppliers charged only symbolically. The residents who stepped forward and became most involved in the planning process spent their private resources and as many as 8 hours a day, often 7 days a week, to research fracking, write to newspapers and political stakeholders, assist their barristers, meet and coordinate with other groups and spread awareness about shale gas impacts. More than a regular week of a paid consultant, researcher or a campaigner. Nevertheless, some residents still concede that the costs associated with the planning process were a greater challenge than opposing Cuadrilla.

Shale gas exploration, to say nothing of extraction, has not even begun and we are yet to see the thousands of new jobs and economic prosperity that were promised for the austerity-stricken North. However, people in just one area have already had to spend around £700k and contributed unpaid work worth hundreds of thousands of pounds just to have a say about the company’s plans to explore for shale gas at just two sites in the area.

In the popular perception, Lancashire serves as a national test-case for fracking and that is probably why the consultations were more robust and the costs – higher than they would normally be once fracking is up and running. However, if engagement in the planning process becomes prohibitively expensive, it is unlikely that the decision will reflect a balance of interests.

This is why what happened in Lancashire in 2015 was so unusual. Despite the governmental pressures and imbalance in resources, local democratic representatives voted against Cuadrilla’s plans to explore for shale gas. Cuadrilla appealed, which was – in the words of the company’s CEO Francis Egan - “a natural step in the democratic process.” The Secretary of State for Communities called in the appeal decision and we are currently expecting his announcement which may determine the future of shale gas in Lancashire as well as the UK.

If he gives shale gas exploration a green light, fracking is going to happen in a country where more people are opposed to than support it; where a local county council votes against shale gas exploration and where many local residents are vehemently anti-fracking. It would seem that a formally democratic process no longer yields democratic results. Instead, actors with more financial resources and political backing use the democratic features of planning to subvert local democracy. How can this happen?

In addition to talking about the economic costs for the developer, one of the chief tactics used to exert pressure on decision-makers is to propagate narratives of delay. Gas industry and some media are no exception and Cuadrilla also warned the UK government that investors do not have “limitless patience”.

The implicit rationale for fast-tracking development is that lengthy inquiries and democratic deliberation impose an economic cost on the developer and put delivery of a project at risk. More often than not, forced facilitation of a development may also have an additional effect of stifling opposition because people need time to gather research and mobilise resources to engage with the decision-making process.

In addition to informal political pressures to fast-track fracking, the government also announced a formal disciplining mechanism for local planning authorities which have 16 weeks to decide whether to approve shale gas developments. Beyond that limit, ministers could step in and determine the decision.

However, a careful look at the calendar of Cuadrilla’s applications in Lancashire reveals that the finger of blame for extending the planning time frames has been pointed in the wrong direction. The 4.5k-page documentation submitted with the applications was first to be considered and the applications determined within 6 months. However, Cuadrilla kept submitting new information that was supposed to prove that fracking in the Fylde was safe and constituted an appropriate use of land. The deadline was later extended by 4 weeks because this additional information required further consultations. A week before the Lancashire County Council was supposed to make a decision, the company asked for a deferral so that it had time to provide information on additional mitigation measures which would address the concerns raised by the council’s planning officers in their recommendation to refuse planning permission. Following this request, in April 2015, the decision was delayed again. Cuadrilla extended the entire process by more than 12 months when it announced its plans to lodge an appeal.

In total, it has been more than two years from application to determination. The company took advantage of its democratic right to appeal and a fair consideration of its applications, which inevitably extended decision-making times. However, this fact was then used by many actors to complain that the associated processes took time and to put pressure on decision-makers.

The costs and delays created by the requirements of the planning process as well as by the developers who want their projects at any price are a problem not only for the extraction companies. They are also hugely draining for the local communities facing the prospect of fracking. The problem is that so far the narratives about delays and costs are more likely to be used as a proxy for justifying the government’s plans to move shale gas into national planning than as a democratic impulse to allocate and distribute time and costs in more productive ways. If shale gas is designated as “nationally significant infrastructure”, it would not require local consent. This move may be advantageous for the industry but would it be beneficial to the people in Lancashire?

Lancashire might have spent over half a million to defend its democratic decision. What else would the people of Britain have to give away to facilitate fracking? Let’s hope it’s not local democracy.

Anna Szolucha

Local knowledge and environmental risk assessment

One of the most frequent and persistent questions that come up with regard to environmental risk assessments and community responses to the level of risks identified in those studies is: why is there such a disjuncture between community risk perceptions and official evaluations of risk?

A researcher from City University of New York analysed a case of a low-income, African-American neighbourhood in the Hyde Park area in Augusta, Georgia. She illustrates how environmental risk assessments can exclude the experiences of marginalised groups such as the poor and people of colour. Her analysis is especially important because environmental problems are heavily dependent upon scientific information so any biases in this information may have significant and lasting impacts on many social issues.

The fact that something can be regarded as environmental science does not mean that it will necessarily lead to environmental justice.

Many aspects of environmental risk assessments are probabilistic, meaning they can only tell us that certain impacts are more or less likely. Assigning these probabilities, however, is not a value-free exercise, as Checker shows in her article. One of possible biases that shape risk assessments and environmental science is in how officials choose to define a “typical” subject or a member of a particular community. Such a subject is usually male and of a particular age. If officials are not very familiar with the social make-up of the community under study, they may also rely on stereotypes and displace potential harms caused by toxic contamination by reporting them as a problem that did not result from industrial practices but some other (stereotypical) feature of the community. Another bias may stem from the failure to address cumulative risks of exposure to toxins.

Community risk perceptions vary according to their socioeconomic characteristics. This means that previous experiences of marginalisation and discrimination can further heighten and intensify the perceived threat.

Checker shows how ethnographic research can complement environmental risk studies and she suggests a community-based participatory research model in order to improve the quality of risk assessments as well as the relations with governmental agencies.

Checker, M. (2007). ‘But I know it’s true’: environmental risk assessment, justice, and anthropology. Human Organization, 66(2), 112.

Debunking the “bridge:” Can gas really act as a bridging fuel to a low-carbon UK energy?

A recent report from the UK Energy Research Centre analyses the future role of natural gas in the UK. It shows that the substitution of coal by gas in the country’s energy system has started at least in the 1970s. From 1990-2000, there was the so-called dash for gas when gas gradually reduced coal use in power generation. By 2014 the use of gas in UK primary energy consumption had increased from 5% in 1970 to 47% and the use of coal had fallen from 40% to 16%.

Given UK’s statutory greenhouse gas emission reduction targets (80% reduction by 2050 from the level in 1990) and the decision to cancel its £1 billion carbon capture and storage demonstration programme, the question arises whether developing shale gas in the UK is the most cost-effective solution to meet the UK’s energy needs while reducing its emissions. The report concludes that “gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system.” And further: it could only act as a bridge from 2015-2020. In fact, without carbon capture and storage technology, gas must be steadily phased out and almost entirely removed by 2050. The report states that “the scope for UK gas use in 2050 is little more than 10% of its 2010 level.” All in all, building new gas-fired power stations may reduce emissions in the short term but it would not be the most cost-effective solution and may seriously compromise the UK’s decarbonisation targets by diverting investment from low- or zero-carbon power generation.   

McGlade, C., Pye, S., Watson, J., Bradshaw, M., & Ekins, P. (2016). The future role of natural gas in the UK. UK Energy Research Centre.

Researcher shows that field and well productivities of shale gas in the US are overestimated

Geoscientist and a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, J. David Hughes, in a Nature article: “Wells decline rapidly within a few years. Those in the top five US plays typically produced 80–95% less gas after three years. In my view, the industry practice of fitting hyperbolic curves to data on declining productivity, and inferring lifetimes of 40 years or more, is too optimistic. Existing production histories are a few years at best, and thus are insufficient to substantiate such long life-times for wells. Because production declines more steeply than these models typically suggest, the method often overestimates ultimate recoveries and economic performance.” (2013)

Hughes, J. D. (2013). A reality check on the shale revolution. Nature, 494(7437), 307–308.

Exxon's u-turn on climate change research and its consequences

Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, Exxon's own research confirmed mainstream scientific consensus about the impact of carbon dioxide and climate change on the planet, a report by Inside Climate News shows. In 1979, the company even launched a million-dollar project during which scientists went aboard the company's Esso Atlantic tanker in order to measure how quickly the oceans were taking in CO2. Although the results of this research were published, corporate executives were careful about what they told the company's shareholders. When in the late 1980s, the climate change problem began to attract even more attention from various political actors, Exxon started financing research and groups that would work to amplify uncertainty about climate science. The report claims that: “Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.” In the end, the millions of dollars that the company spent over the years on efforts of climate deniers long surpassed what it had paid for its early research.

Two points come to mind when one reads this story: (1) scientific integrity and unbiased research was (is?) still possible regardless of who paid for it and (2), if scientific research about the threat of climate change does not positively affect the profitability of the industry, the industry will look for strategies that do. Energy corporations have no binding obligation to contribute to good science and can use it instrumentally to further their own interests in much the same way as they do not have an obligation to contribute to communities living in the vicinity of their developments. That is why the question of ethics – so often raised in discussions about the interface between society and industry – may sometimes be completely misguided. In the 1980s, Exxon researchers were advocates of unbiased science not because they felt that the company owed it to society to let people know what the risks were; rather, they understood that it was not a question of ethics and “often repeated that unbiased science would give [Exxon] legitimacy in helping shape climate-related laws that would affect its profitability.”

There is a follow-up to this story: in November 2015, New York Attorney General began an investigation about whether Exxon lied to the public as well as its shareholders about possible risks that climate change could pose to its business. Presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have also called for the federal Attorney General to investigate. Additionally, the company may be facing class actions by investors as well as criminal charges for securities fraud and racketeering in California, among others.

Banerjee, N., Song, L., & Hasemyer, D. (2015, September 16). Exxon’s Own Research Confirmed Fossil Fuels’ Role in Global Warming Decades Ago. Retrieved 16 December 2015, from