• In Public Trust

    The clock ticks down and we all sit and bite our nails or storm the keyboards and the internet itself. Possibly as soon as this time next week we might know how they’ve decided. As I write, the Environment Agency are considering whether to grant fracking firm Cuadrilla a Mining Waste Permit. This will create a precedent which stands to affect decisions on drilling throughout the Weald if not the whole of the UK. If granted, the permit would enable the disposal of toxic, radioactive frack effluent as well as give a further green light to the fracking industry across the board.

    As part of the consultation the EA are inviting submissions from the public. Anyone resident in the UK can make a submission and it's a good idea for us to do so, considering this may be our best hope to get these plans overturned and that it’s the first thing resembling a proper public examination of the process: the original planning application of 2010 was a quiet and unheralded affair and probably very deliberately so.

    Are there precedents abroad we can learn from? Certainly the history of intervention from environmental regulators in the U.S. is less than inspiring. The Environmental Protection Agency recently reneged on the release of a report into links between groundwater contamination and fracking. Due out in 2014 – already a tardy release date considering the pace at which fracking in the US is underway – the report is now due for release in 2016, a move which has been put down to political chicanery from on high given Obama’s support for fracking as a supposed ‘transition fuel’.

    Meanwhile, a study from Duke University in the US has proved pretty damning against the industry, stating - amongst other data - that “on average, methane concentrations were six times higher and ethane concentrations were 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a shale gas well.” It is the third such study by the University.

    One thing that both countries now have in common is that our respective governments have thrown their weight behind the process. Obama’s apparently sincere belief that shale gas represents a non fossil-fuelled way forward is echoed by the Tory’s undoubted mesmerisation by prospective pound signs. And it puts the onus on both the EPA and the EA to stand up for environmental protection when the governments they serve are so clearly in reverse gear regarding any kind of sanity towards our respective ecologies.

    It therefore means that only a sufficient popular groundswell such as we are witnessing can create the political conditions whereby it becomes tenable for the regulators to actually do their job - i.e. to provide a robust custodianship of the existing natural environment rather than simply slapping down a few token fines next to meaningless for the companies concerned, or to procrastinate over vital studies while the frackers continue pell-mell.

    It doesn’t help that the EPA has been repeatedly forced into humiliating climbdowns over reports criticising the gas industry. As Alan Septoff, communications director for an anti-fracking environmental group Earthworks has put it: “It would be one thing if these were isolated incidents. But every time the EPA has come up with something damning, somehow, something magically has occurred to have them walk it back.”

    If there remains a need for further rigorous research, for anyone not convinced by the reports such as those of Duke University or of environmental consultant Jessica Ernst or The Centre for Environmental Health and who choose to dismiss the wave of personal testimony from areas affected, it speaks volumes about the current inverted state of affairs whereby the precautionary principle is knowhere to be seen. Given that the effects to groundwater stand to be as long lasting as they are systemic, and that it can take years for chemicals to migrate through the geology, the ‘logic’ of rushing ahead with gas production is clearly a genuinely catastrophic non sequitur.

    Instead we are faced with the sad, unseemly spectacle of a literal race to the bottom by companies whose only concerns are profits and staving off debt, given credibility by governments desperate for an energy fix without rearranging the furniture and buoyed by the promise of riches, however dubious or even dangerous the financial effect of fracking may be. Standing against them, our Environment Agency faces a crucial test – will it prove robustly faithful to its guiding principles or will it be forced into the kind of acquiescence that has so disastrously undermined its American counterpart? In Britain now, at one end of the spectrum, we have a government whose mandate to rule was gained at a slither and roll of the dice and which seems unpopular by a millennial margin. At the other there is the groundswell of popular concern, of horror and disquiet that our government actually means to commit ecological (and probable effective political) suicide. We wait. The drums roll. Faith in institutions hangs in the balance as does the fate of the country itself.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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