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Presumption against fracking in our beautiful countryside is welcome

28 July 2014

12:12 PM

28 July 2014

12:12 PM

The government’s announcement today that fracking will not take place in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty save ‘in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest’ is a welcome and sensible move. It may indeed be in the national interest to exploit a new source of energy, but these landscapes are specially protected in the national interest, too.

The government states that countryside ‘adjacent’ to these protected areas will also be covered by the policy. That will be a relief to the residents of Wisborough Green and Kirdford in my constituency, two villages in beautiful countryside close to the South Downs National Park which have faced the prospect of drilling.

Last week West Sussex County Council turned down Celtique Energie‘s application for exploratory oil and gas drilling that could lead to fracking, becoming the first local authority in England to do so. The Council’s Planning Committee said that the company ‘had not demonstrated the site represented the best option compared to other sites, has unsafe highways access and would have an adverse impact on Wisborough Green as a conservation area’.

By choosing a location that would involve heavy lorries passing through a quintessential English village, with its green, pub and cricket pitch, Celtique managed to unite ‘greens’ who oppose fracking on principle (a principled but probably small element of the local population) with Middle England, who saw an adverse impact on their community and possibly their property prices (a substantial majority).

Traffic was the key issue. Celtique told West Sussex County Council that exploratory drilling would cause less than a 3 per cent increase on traffic movements over nearly six months. But the Council’s Highways Department rejected the company’s figures, assessing that drilling would actually cause up to two-thirds more heavy traffic for the period.

What residents particularly feared was that the heavy lorries for exploratory drilling could just be the beginning, with no clear end in sight. If oil was found, there would be further drilling, followed by exploitation, probably involving lorries taking the oil off the site unless the find was so great that a pipeline could be built. The government’s own Strategic Environmental Assessment for Further Onshore Oil and Gas Licensing said that drilling would mean as many as 51 lorry journeys each day for three years, and that the traffic issues could be ‘more sustained and locally significant’ on communities adjacent to development sites. And there could be more than one well on the same site.

Earlier this year I wrote to Celtique’s Chief Executive, Geoff Davies, asking for clarification on lorry movements. I warned him that: ‘In the absence of this information, residents not only fear the worst – significant lorry movements thorough the village for an indefinite period – but also form the impression that you are not being open about what will be involved.’ He didn’t reply.


By this stage, local people smelt a very large rat. Indeed, Celtique’s community relations were dismal. While failing to provide accurate information to assuage the community’s biggest concern, Mr Davies branded West Sussex objectors as ‘selfish and unpatriotic’. Last week he dismissed the County Council’s decision as ‘politically motivated’. The oil and gas industry could not have wished for a worse advocate for its earliest fracking applications.

When trust has broken down, it’s hard to deal with other fears. There is particular concern in the South Downs about the water used for fracking, both because of short supplies and the effect of any leakage of contaminated water from a well into the chalk aquifer. The Royal Society is confident that the risks can be ‘managed effectively’, and the Government has stressed that regulation will be robust, but when people hear the same minister say that fracking will go ahead even if it shakes rectory walls, they are understandably sceptical.

It hasn’t helped that the case for shale was oversold. It was claimed that shale would lower energy prices. Now the Government admits this would not be so. The arguments left are stronger: that shale could help in the quest for energy security, would create jobs and could be more environmentally friendly than burning imported fossil fuels. But the environmental case can’t just about carbon: it must also include the impact of onshore exploitation on the countryside. The bigger the effect on energy security and fuel substitution, the bigger the impact on the landscape will be. Conversely, if there’s not much exploitable shale in the south, the national case for drilling in this area falls away.

And here’s the problem: no-one can say what the scale will be. In May, the British Geological Survey found that, in contrast to the Bowland basin in the North West of England, there was unlikely to be a significant source of shale gas in the Weald. There could be a significant quantity of shale oil, but there is a ‘high degree of uncertainty’ about the figures, and ‘it may be that only limited amounts of shale … have any potential to produce oil in commercial quantities.’ The then Energy Minister, Michael Fallon, conceded that ‘it’s not as big a number as earlier estimates’, but said that:

The study confirms that there is potential, even in southern England, for a significant addition to our home-grown energy supplies ….  It is therefore in the national interest to do everything we can to find out how much of this potential can be brought into production, whilst fully protecting the environment, and to put everything in place to ensure it can happen.’

A former Conservative Energy Secretary, Lord Howell, demurred. His comments that fracking should only take place in the ‘desolate north’ were much derided. But the serious points he made about the risks versus the rewards of promoting fracking in the wrong places deserve attention:

This is not an argument against doing everything to get commercial fracking started, but it is an argument against starting in the wrong places and with misleading statements about timing and effect.  Trying to start in Southern England, and in the Home counties, or in rural and countryside areas anywhere, north or south, is a guarantee of longer delays, higher costs and increased hostility from both green left and countryside right.’

Today’s announcement by the government amounts to a tacit admission that Lord Howell had a point. Creating a strong presumption against fracking in our most important countryside is a good start. But other steps need to be taken, too.

First, the industry should be much savvier in its choice of sites. There are a few small oil wells which have operated for years in and around my constituency, without public concern. They are located away from villages, with access for lorries from main roads. Of course, the availability of sites may be constrained since it depends on willing landowners, but routing lorries through village greens is asking for trouble.

Second, the government has made much of the successive tests which fracking applications must pass, as well as the need to protect the need to protect the environment. So where a company fails to assure a planning authority on issues like traffic, as was the case in West Sussex last week, the government must not give the nod and wink to the Planning Inspectorate to reverse the decision on appeal, as they have done with housing. That would gravely undermine community faith in the regulatory process, and send the wrong signal to companies about their choice of sites and operating proposals.

Third, there needs to be better information about what fracking entails, including open and honest information from the industry about issues such as lorry movements. Celtique’s contemptuous approach in West Sussex should serve as a training manual for how not to proceed.

It’s all too easy to attack those who raise concerns about drilling as NIMBYs. But local people are bound to object to lorries thundering down quiet country lanes and through their village greens. They would for any industrial activity, not just fracking. Wouldn’t you? It’s not enough bluntly to assert that it’s in the national interest to frack, so local objections should be over-ridden. Nor will the promise of a bung to a local council be sufficient compensation for individual property blight.

With Russia’s aggression in the news, it’s not hard to appreciate the case for increasing our energy security, but the drive for shale has got off to a bad start. West Sussex isn’t Texas, as the industry has discovered. With today’s announcement the new Energy Minister, Matt Hancock — an undoubted enthusiast for fracking — has demonstrated a subtler approach that better reflects realities in this country. Now the industry needs to get a lot smarter, too.

Nick Herbert is Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs.

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Show comments
  • creuynni

    Who are all you people who appear to know nothing about fracking and it’s impacts? Nor the amount of renewable technolgies (i.e. not just wind, there is so much more) and the amount of long term money and energy that can be created with these?

    Please, if you wish to air you opinion on this, please look at evidence on both sides before making your decision of your opinion. On both sides.

    If possible, visiting the fracked parts of the U.S. would be beneficial, especially those where the fracking companies are shipping in water to families whose water has been contaminated. Very kind of them, I’m sure, but I expect the families would prefer to have water out of the tap.
    And how much water do they think they can replace?! And where would they get it from in ‘drought’ seasons over here?

    Perhaps a lesson on geology, to see how contamination occurs. What else? Some chemistry into the chemicals used.

    I would love for the anti-frackers to be wrong, I really would, but I have studied both sides, and reading between the lines, looking at hard evidence, it would appear there is a reason why countries like France ban fracking (yet French and other countries companies come here and try and frack our land)

  • Maidmarrion

    “Exceptional circumstances” -indeed weasel words – though why weasels should be blamed for the words of obfuscating politicians/broadcasters and newspapers I will never know.

    From Clean water

    “Fracking: The Dangers

    Fracking uses a toxic chemical cocktail known as fracking fluid.

    Companies using fracking fluid have resisted disclosing the contents of fracking fluid, claiming the information is proprietary. However, samples from well sites indicate that the fluid contains: formaldehyde, acetic acids, citric acids, and boric acids, among hundreds of other contaminants.

    It has recently come to light that, despite the illegality of the action, companies have been caught using diesel fuel in the fracking fluid.”
    They are all so trustworthy those frackers aren’t they?

    • John_Page

      More green lies. In the UK frackers will have to disclose what additional chemicals they will use in the <1% of fracking fluid that isn't sand/water (both chemicals, by the way). The chemicals most used are found in cosmetics and food, so not awfully harmful.

  • andagain

    Because the last thing we want in this country is a major new industry.

  • David Thompson

    Tories Labour UKIP Lib DeMS support Fracking – it must be sleazy as we know all politicos are foul- lets elect more new Greens

    • John_Page

      Greens base all their policies on the theory that more CO2 causes runaway global warming. That’s looking increasingly implausible.

  • David Thompson

    It is atrocious that we will upset the Water Table for short term greed – we do not need the Gas- The Tories lie and they are so intent of quick ways to get rich- it is sick sack the Tory conservatives- we need more Green/Blues-

    • John_Page

      How far down is the water table? And how far down will the fracking be? And what evidence do you have of “upset” water tables in the States among the thousands of wells fracked, to counter the verdict of the UK engineers’ body that the water table is not at risk from properly constructed wells?

  • pobinr

    Energy demands are up 6% due to 6% increase in population due to immigration.
    Or maybe more unless you believe government figures, which I do not.
    Let’s hope fracking doesn’t threaten all that lovely green belt that’s going to have to be built on to house the surplus of people we now have in this overcrowded island. We’re now three times more densely populated than Romania & nearly twice as densely populated as Poland!
    Vote UKIP

  • Ron Todd

    Another rich public school type protecting their bit of the countryside while condeming the rest of us to higher energy prices.

  • itdoesntaddup

    But meantime the Nick Boles vision of a new housing estate that will result in a permanent increase in traffic – and many more lorries to build it – will be forced through, Green Belt or National Park notwithstanding – over 600 new homes in nearby Billingshurst approved in just the past year, all to accommodate the rising immigrant population. Of course, no windmills in the protected South – only offshore, where they are even more heavily subsidised.

    Mr Herbert is an echo chamber for his local NIMBYs, who seeks to avoid proper information, or to consider sensible solutions. Does he fear for his seat otherwise? The local propaganda site is full of Green fear-mongering based on all the usual false premises

  • HFC

    I may be wrong but I am pretty sure Mr Herbert (or is he Mrs in his civil partnership?) was/is closely involved with the Keep Kirdford & Wisborough Green campaign which has published some very suspect statistics about lorry movements. Their scare numbers were derived from extrapolations of assumptions made around a drilling proposal in the Blackpool area and by deliberately confusing litres and gallons they spectacularly inflated their dodgy conclusions.

    As a resident of West Sussex, very local to Wisborough Green, I am saddened that such propaganda has been accepted and endorsed by the MP, local parish councils and other Nimbys to engender fear and resistance to an activity that may have the potential to help meet our energy needs and assuage our reliance on imported energy.

    • Stu Clark

      Oh dear, It seems one needs to engage in a little ‘fact finding’ rather than trying to bolster nonsensical statements through pathetic personal attacks on an MP who has not only stood up for his constituency while risking party alienation but clearly demonstrating he has I dotted and T crossed with regard to the factual statements he has made. Nick Herbert remained totally impartial throughout his endeavours to gather the facts, I met him personally to discus the Celtique application after he had met with representatives from Celtique. MR. Herbert stated in our meeting “the planning committee will have to determine the application based on the facts they are presented with, a ‘nimby’ attitude will be overlooked and the application will be determined on site specifics, the nation has a need to be energy sufficient and less reliant on imports, if this application has merit regarding location and future supply then it needs to be decided through debate and evidence and not through the pressure of local groups with a ‘nimby’ attitude and agenda”.

      He stated this to me as the group founder and surrounded by other interested parties of which he knew would not welcome those words. So Dear Sir, if you would indeed like to know a few more facts regarding this application, please contact me, google is your friend so I am easy to find, and as you are so local to Wisborough Green it would be a shame for us not to meet so I can school you in the area of fact. This application has resulted in 19 months of extreme work, countless studies and a HUGE amount of money and personal anguish.

      Kindly yours,

      Stu Clark (Wisborough Green).

      • HFC

        Keep Kirdford & Wisborough Green campaign (which) has published some very suspect statistics about lorry movements. Their scare numbers were derived from extrapolations of assumptions made around a drilling proposal in the Blackpool area and by deliberately confusing litres and gallons they spectacularly inflated their dodgy conclusions.

        • Damian Dixon

          The lorry data was initially from the data supplied as part of the original planning application.

          In addition the locals commissioned their own traffic survey because Celtique would not publish the raw figures from thier survey.

          I would suggest that you read my objections while also reading the planning application.

          Both of which may be found on the WSCC planning website.

          I hope you will be suitably horrified at how poor the applications scientific content and detail on what they said they would be doing and their responses to questions raised by the local community and council.

  • Raddiy

    I suspect like Lord Howell, those who came up with this idea are absolutely clueless about the geographical scale and extent of National Parks and Area’s of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

    North of the M62 all the way to the Scottish Border a distance of 130 miles on the west of the Pennines, to 160 miles on the east of the Pennines, most of the landscape is either National Park or AONB, or in close proximity to either or both., including the Bowland.basin of fracking fame.

    I would suggest there are more available areas that are not National Parks or AONB’s in Sussex etc, than there are available in the North, which of course takes us back to the beginning of this debate.

  • Radford_NG

    The British Geological Survey is not a stand alone scientific institute,according to The Independent:it’s officers are on chummy terms with the agents of at least one fracking company.

    It is claimed there is nothing wrong with being friends;but is two chaps buddying up and going to a Bruce Springsteen concert together (having met through their work) any different from being lovers:one from a company seeking profits,the other from a research group advising the government and public in matters concerning the companies work?

    • Makroon

      The academic/institutional geologists of the BGS have only quaint notions about economic geology, let alone reserve calculations.
      The knowledge lies with the practitioners.
      It is entirely sensible for the BGS to work closely with industry experts. Contrary to greeny and lefty paranoia, most earth scientists in the extractive industries, are deeply protective of the environment.
      The difference is, that they are informed, unlike the greeny cultists.

  • The Laughing Cavalier

    Once the drilling is done the visual impact is negligible, all that is left is a small well-head that can be screened by hedges and pipes which can go underground. There really is no sensible reason why fracking cannot take place in National Parks.

    • Makroon

      There are plenty of locations outside National Parks, to be explored, so this is a totally specious debate.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Here’s the entrance to the nearby Storrington field, just outside the village.

      You can explore up the access road and just about see the nodding donkeys and tankage that lie to the side of the Rugby Club and airfield. The flarestack flame is entirely shrouded – only visible in satellite view peering down its chimney.

  • Shazza

    Anything to lessen our dependency on energy from islamic countries.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      … and Putin’s Russia.

  • flaxdoctor

    “But local people are bound to object to lorries thundering down quiet country lanes and through their village greens.”

    Fortunately the brighter folk amongst us already know that gas can be persuaded to travel along pipes, thereby eliminating any need for thundering.

    • HookesLaw

      And do wind farms build themselves and remain invisible?

  • In2minds

    “It hasn’t helped that the case for shale was oversold” –

    A bit like wiondfarms then?

  • Blindsideflanker

    If anyone believes our slimy politicians have protected our National Parks or places of natural beauty from fracking are gullible idiots, after all no amount of protection saved the English countryside from Cameron’s expensive train set. They just want to get fracking established here before they start nibbling away at any protection given to areas.

    Personally I am not against fracking, but what I am against is England being raped for the British political establishment to squander the money on their Aid, Foreign military ventures, Europe, and so on. Any money that fracking generates should be removed from general public expenditure and spent on publicly agreed projects, for my self about the best thing we can do for the next generation with the fracking money is to try and lighten the national debt burden.

  • dado_trunking

    I am freakin’ out. The foundations (if they exist) of which Victorian structure of Outstanding Natural Beauty would wobble first, and more to the point, what’s the home insurers view on this?

    • the viceroy’s gin

      …and even more to the point, what does your goat sockpuppet think, lad?

      • Inverted Meniscus

        Impossible to tell. It will be expressed in socialist nutter gibberish.

  • HookesLaw

    Totally self serving comments from someone representing a group of self serving people

  • John_Page

    A despicable, smug, weasel piece from a backbencher who doesn’t want to take responsibility for anything.

    One example. Herbert claims government no longer thinks shale will lower prices. His link is from last year, to Ed Davey, who as a Lib Dem does not represent the view of Herbert’s party. As Herbert very well knows.

    What a dishonest post.

    • The Laughing Cavalier

      Davey doesn’t want energy to be cheaper.

    • Inverted Meniscus

      Sorry, what is your point? Are you in favour of or against Fracking?

    • Shazza

      For me it is not about lowering the cost, it is about dependency on islamic energy.

      If we did not have to kowtow so much to Saudi Arabia et al, maybe we could then tackle the growing capitulation of our spineless politicians to the ever increasing demands of the moslems living here.

      Maybe they could then grow a pair and put an end to our hellbent race back to the 7th century.

      • Makroon

        How about “Slav energy” and “Communist Venezuelan energy”, are they still OK ?

        • Shazza

          Yup. They don’t want to take me back to the Dark Ages and subject me to FGM, honour killing, koran sanctioned wife beating etc. etc. etc.

    • Makroon

      Absolutely. God save us from politicians lecturing us on the basis of their crass ignorance.
      Tight oil and gas HAVE ALREADY lowered fuel prices.

      • Stu Clark

        Oh, a ‘straw man operation’ you think? Too many movies! Stats please? Egan seems to agree et al. Stu (sic). “An error does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it” and no, it was not Kennedy it was Battista, shall we go on or possible move on?

    • itdoesntaddup
      • Stu Clark

        ‘Fear’ is an incredibly powerful emotion, but ‘Hope’ trumps it. 😉

    • Stu Clark

      Pfff, see my response to a comment below………

  • LadyDingDong

    It is good news that when the energy crisis hits the UK, we will be able to light our lights from the wonderful views of our sacred national parks, and heat our homes with the pre-election hot air from our rulers. If only such consideration had been geven when erecting thousands of unsightly and ineffective wind turbines in those same area now being protected. Four years to make a tough decision and now one more year to delay it and hope no-one notices – it’s enough to make a Conservative vote UKIP.

    • Count Dooku

      Well said. Though I won’t be joining you in voting UKIP.
      UKIP if you want to, this Tory is not for turning!

      • ArchiePonsonby

        Then you richly deserve everything that’s coming to you!

    • Stu Clark

      That was indeed funny, ‘That stories NOT for Twisting’.