The announcement that drilling for shale gas would only be allowed in National Parks if there were exceptional circumstances, begs the question of what circumstances exactly?
Surely, these iconic areas of specially protected countryside should be so far off screen in this debate that the assurance is unnecessary?
Ever since the serious discussion began on the shale gas issue, I have felt an ominous foreboding that any government would be sorely tempted to go down this route for reasons of energy security and also the possibility that Russia might close the gas pipelines to Western Europe. The problem with that sort of situation is that other precautions and logic go out of the window. The situation is not simple however, and current political thinking on the environment is not reassuring. When central government views environmental and conservation laws as unnecessary red tape, and seems to have lost touch with sound and sensible countryside management, then we have cause for concern.
This is not to say that fracking could or should never go ahead anywhere, but I have many questions about safety and impacts and none have been answered.
My main concerns are not necessarily things like minor earth tremors, which are a worry for many people. My own fears are more fundamental, and concern matters such as visual impact on the landscape and loss of both productive farmland and wildlife habitats.
So let us imagine these fracking licences being granted in Bawtry and parts of the Peak District. Clearly, the operations make money or else nobody would be interested and the industry would not be offering cash sweeteners to local communities. However, in assessing the economic benefits to the communities, we have to take into account what would happen in that landscape without fracking? Local farming might be affected, and impacts on groundwater might affect crops and even summer irrigation. More significantly though would be an adverse impact on the region’s hugely important tourism industries, associated with an industrialisation of the landscape, particularly in the Dearne Valley area where there’s a real focus to build on the tourism economy.
The shale gas has been there for a long time and it is not about to go away so there is no need for haste beyond the political expediency of central government. Local communities feel threatened by an unknown technology and unexplained impacts, so they simply cannot make an informed decision. There are genuine concerns about destabilising the geology beneath our towns and villages, and pollution to water above and below ground. All these reasons suggest that we should at least be cautious. This is even more the case as we now lack environmental ‘champions’ in local government and governmental agencies.