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13 May 2017

Could fierce opposition to fracking make life difficult for certain Tories?

The energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise.

By India Bourke

“Fracking is one issue that encapsulates nearly everything that is currently wrong with the state of our democracy,” says Tina Rothery, the anti-fracking “nana” now standing as a Green Party candidate in Fylde in Lancashire. But is it also a subject that could leave the Tory Party fractured come the 8 June?

Tina has long battled the UK’s oil and gas industry over this issue and sees the government’s recent support for an exploration well at Preston New Road (in direct opposition to the will of Lancashire County Council) as a particularly “sickening” act:

“It shows that it was possible for Westminster to say that local democracy doesn’t count when they choose it not to count. It also shows that what we consider to be a clear and obvious danger to the health of our children, comes second to the profits of an industry.”

Objections to fracking are many – from the threat that pumping high volumes of water and chemicals into the ground poses to the local environment, to its global contribution to rising CO2. Even Sam Hall, a senior researcher at Bright Blue, a liberal conservative think tank, is not entirely convinced by the development of more carbon-intensive infrastructure, “at a time when we should be rapidly reducing our consumption of fossil fuels”.

Such arguments appear to have struck a seam of sympathy during the recent local elections. The Green Party saw its support surge across numerous at-risk areas: in North Yorkshire’s Falsgrave and Stepney, David Malone’s vote rose from 18 per cent – 32 per cent; in Lancashire’s Lancaster Central, Gina Dowding was re-elected with a massively increased majority; and on the Isle of Wight the election returned the Green’s first ever councillor for the island. According to Dilys Cluer, a Green Party councillor on Scarborough Borough Council, some party supporters are becoming more active specifically on fracking.

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Independent candidates and Lib Dems also returned strong results in fracked-off locales. In Malton in North Yorkshire – where a test-well was given planning approval last year – the anti-fracking Independent candidate saw their 2013 lead surge from 855-1554 votes.

So is it possible that these arguments could yet cause Conservative government support for the industry to fissure and split?

Public support is behind the fracking-fight: the latest government survey shows 30 per cent oppose the practice, while just 19 per cent are in favour. And left-wing thinking on the subject is increasingly united: Labour’s leaked manifesto suggests the party will join the Greens and Lib Dems in calling for an outright ban. In the recent Manchester Mayoral race, even the Conservative candidate tweeted that he would oppose fracking “until, if ever, it’s proven to be safe”.

The economic justification for fracking is also on unstable ground. Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, thinks its profitability might not pan out as hoped, “particularly with international gas prices falling again and Donald Trump determined to increase US output”. While according to Josh Emden, IPPR Research Fellow, there are concerns over its more basic viability: “Even leaving aside environmental and carbon budget concerns, estimates reported by government from actual test drilling currently show fracking could only supply gas to the UK for an optimistic maximum of ten years.”

But what about Conservative domination at county level – won’t that hand the party control over fracking’s future? Seven English counties with high densities of fracking licences all saw their numbers of Conservative councillors increase in the recent elections, potentially making those councils more willing to grant applications to frack. For Kathryn McWhirter, a member of Balcombe’s Frack Free Residents Association in West Sussex, the Tory triumph has been deflating: “Too many in our area are still asleep, unaware of the plethora of wells we could have across this region if we fail to oppose the industry successfully.”

Yet in spite of this, the energy behind the anti-fracking campaign only appears to be on the rise. In the upcoming general election, the Lib Dems have their eye on Ryedale, and the Green’s Tina Rothery on Fylde. Plus, thanks to the pooled resources of Frack Free United and Cross Party Frack Free, it is becoming ever easier to track the thinking of individual candidates – with leaflets, an interactive map, and a register where those candidates can document their support for a ban.  

Vital now will be keeping up the pressure – both in the lead up to the election and beyond. Friends of the Earth is on the case with a call for all prospective parliamentary candidates to agree to a series of environmental pledges. Campaigners at Reclaim the Power are already organising protests for the summer.

As Greenpeace’s Hannah Martin recently said in a statement: “Facing arrest for protesting is scary, but the prospect of fracking in Lancashire is scarier.”