The big environmental story of the weekend was the end of shale gas in England. New research has shown that it can’t be done safely, recent economic analysis has suggested it won’t be particularly profitable, and the idea has been shelved.
Yes, it’s a well timed intervention for the election, against a deeply unloved idea. It comes at no expense, given the industry is failing anyway. Yes, some of us knew it wouldn’t be the same as the shale boom in the US and have been saying so since David Cameron threw his weight behind fracking in 2013. But to give the government its dues, they always did say they wouldn’t push ahead with it if it couldn’t be done safely. In that sense it’s not strictly a U-turn.
The halt in fracking is a victory for the green movement and for direct action. It’s also encouraging to consider it in comparison to some of Britain’s other big follies, such as nuclear energy and airport expansion.
Fracking had the full support of government, promising jobs and economic growth. There was a huge lobbying effort behind it, powerful corporations and Britain’s richest man. Planning laws were changed to make it easier. Mechanisms of local democracy and accountability were overruled to make it happen. Communities were offered bribes financial incentives to allow it. Civil liberties were discarded to try and prevent peaceful protest. Injunctions were secured to keep protesters away, and excessive sentences were handed out to those blocking operations. In other words, fracking had all the power. And still, a bad idea has been recognised to be a bad idea. Eventually.
Will reality now catch up with Hinckley Point, the most expensive building in the world? What about Heathrow’s unjustifiable third runway? How about the many regional airport growth plans, including Luton’s, that are rushing through almost unopposed?
Similar claims are made about airport expansion and fracking. We need them for economic growth. We need the jobs. We’d be left behind by the competition if we didn’t do it.
Here’s David Cameron on fracking, as a reminder: “If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive. Without it, we could lose ground in the tough global race.”
Chris Grayling makes the same arguments for aviation, promising “tens of thousands of local jobs and apprenticeships, and boosting our economy for future generations by expanding Heathrow… Heathrow’s capacity constraints mean it is falling behind its global competitors.”
In halting fracking, we made the right decision despite the potential growth and jobs. Economic growth is not an unanswerable case for doing something environmentally damaging. We can say no. We just did say no to fracking.
Can we also summon the courage to say no to expanding our airports at a time of climate emergency?