Alternative Control Delete

A series of online opinion and analysis pieces that deal with issues that should be debated in Wales during the 2015 general election campaign.

Kelvin Mason on Fracking in Wales

Fears about extreme energy exploitation are uniting people in Wales across disciplines as well as geographical borders. Extreme energy is a term coined to cover technologies such as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil or gas, underground coal gasification, and coal-bed methane, all of which threaten in Wales. Elements of a long campaign by Frack Free Wales came together in January 2015 when Ceredigion council voted to become the first ‘frack free’ local authority in Wales. There is no viable coal-bed methane, coal, shale gas or oil in Ceredigion. The council’s decision reflected its commitment to moving away from the fossil fuels that drive climate change. Councillors were making a statement that Ceredigion cares about others in Wales, internationally, and in the future.

Ceredigion’s decision opened the gates for a flood of similar petitions to councils across Wales. Then, just a week later, Assembly Member for Ceredigion, Elin Jones, forced a debate in the Senedd on transferring decision-making powers on fracking to Wales. This led to the Welsh Government declaring a ‘moratorium’ on fracking, something they had previously insisted was beyond their powers. In fact, what they did was strip the power from county councils to decide on fracking applications. Confusion reigned. Does the moratorium apply to coal-bed methane? Only if it involves fracking. Does it apply to exploratory drilling. No, such decisions are clearly still the province of the councils. So, again, did the Welsh Government actually have this power? It seems not: the power to licence fracking rested with Westminster. Then, in the so-called St David’s Day Agreement, which no one seems to have agreed to, David Cameron and Nick Clegg proposed giving Wales more control over energy policy, including fracking. Both the Labour Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru denounced the plans as second-rate devolution compared with Scotland.

Keith Ross of Frack Free Wales wrote: ‘The Welsh Government’s stance on fracking has not changed. They’re not opposed to fracking per se, they just want stronger regulation. Once they have the new regulations in place they fully intend to press on with unconventional gas development in Wales… There’s still work to be done to convince our elected representatives that there should be no welcome in the hillsides for frackers.’

With Westminster elections looming, let’s review the policies of the main parties standing in Wales. The Tories, of course, are following David Cameron’s call to ‘go all out for fracking’, doubling to 100% the amount Councils keep in business rates from shale gas sites. Contra public opposition, the coalition government pushed through the Infrastructure Bill, changing trespass laws to permit fracking companies to drill under land and homes without the owner’s or occupier’s consent. The bill permits fracking in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Although Lib Dem MP Tessa Munt resigned as parliamentary aide to Business Secretary Vince Cable over the bill, her party backed government policy. Meanwhile, Roger Helmer, UKIP MEP and energy spokesman, has stated that shale gas is ‘a huge opportunity for Britain’, ridiculing the concerns of environmentalists whom he dubs ‘enemies of the people’. Labour Party Policy, both in Wales and Westminster, is limited to stricter environmental regulation and favours a ban on fracking only in National Parks, AONBs and places where drinking water is collected. Plaid Cymru is unambiguously in favour of a moratorium. Going a step further, the Green Party is wholly opposed to fracking.

In the light of political confusion and public concern, a forum in Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 23 April asks what Ceredigion’s decision and the Welsh Government’s ‘moratorium’ really mean culturally, morally and politically. The exploitation of extreme sources of energy could shape the physical, human and cultural geography of the future. ‘Fracking and the imagination: scraping the barrel or saving the day?’ brings together scientists, artists and activists in ‘a public depiction of fracking’, exploring the science and technology before turning to politics and culture: where should energy policy be made and contested? What does extreme energy mean for human rights? And how do we imagine fracking? How do we experience it emotionally and so represent it? What should we really fear about fracking?