Another attempt at a balanced debate on hydraulic fracturing failed tonight because the pro-frackers again declined to take part.
BBC local radio stations for Sussex, Surrey and Kent organised a live programme in front of an audience in the West Sussex village of Fernhurst, where Celtique Energie has applied to drill an exploratory oil well.
The panel included the chairs of Fernhurst and nearby Lynchmere Parish Councils, which both oppose Celtique Energie’s application, as well as the organisation Frack-Free Fernhurst and Professor Paul Stevens, of Chatham House, who often speaks critically of the technique. No one from the oil and gas industry was prepared to take part.
The chair, Neil Pringle, told listeners at home: “The energy companies are not here. They were invited several times.” The defence of fracking was again left to geologist, Dr Nick Riley, who spoke at similar events run last month by Talk Fracking, for which the industry also declined invitations.
Calls for quality public debate
This evening’s often noisy event heard frequent calls for more evidence and a higher quality public debate.
Andrew Moncrief, of Fernhurst Parish Council, said “I had hoped for a rational debate and we have had a lot of emotion”. Sylvia McCallum, of Lynchmere Parish Council, called for a “better, more transparent debate”.
Paul Stevens described the quality of debate nationally so far as “extremely ill-informed on both sides”. He criticised David Cameron and George Osborne for claiming that fracking would bring down energy prices and ensure security of supply “Both are myths”, he said.
There are two schools of thought, he said, about why they had claimed fracking would reduce prices. ”They are either economically-illiterate or dishonest”. He also accused anti-frackers of making claims about the negative environmental impact of fracking, which he said were not supported by scientific evidence.
“Industry has a knack of shooting itself in the foot”
The largely anti-fracking audience in the hall was very critical of both government and industry, as were most of the emails and texts from listeners. Paul Stevens said the industry was “its own worst enemy. It has a knack of shooting itself in the foot”. A listener wrote in: “You cannot say David Cameron is listening to the people when he is saying it [fracking] is going ahead.”
Brenda Pollock, of Friends of the Earth, accused the government of “riding roughshod over local communities who don’t want drilling on their doorstep.” She said ministers were “bending over backwards for the oil and gas industry”, giving tax breaks to the industry, sweeteners to communities, changing the planning rules and undermining investment in renewable energy.
Jill Sutcliffe, of Wisborough Green, another West Sussex village where Celtique Energie has applied to drill, criticised the government for failing to implement all the recommendations of reports it commissioned. Only one of the 10 recommendations of the report by the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers had been implemented, she said.
Regulatory regime is not in place
Julie Wassmer, of East Kent Against Fracking, criticised government claims of a robust regulatory system. “Everyone will say that fracking in the UK is safe with the caveat of a robust regulatory regime. That regulatory regime is not in place.”
John Buchanan, of Frack Free Fernhurst, said “The government and industry are not walking the talk.” He said there was an absence of proper evidence on the safety of fracking. “I have no faith in the industry or the government”, he said.
No trust in oil companies
Actress Sue Jameson, from Wisborough Green, said: “I simply do not trust the oil companies to be truthful.” She described how Celtique Energie claimed at its first public event about its Wisborough Green plans to be “in constant contact” with Sussex Wildlife Trust. The Wildlife Trust later said it had not heard from the company.
Sue Jamieson said: “They [Celtique Energie] started with a lie and I don’t believe an awful lot of what they say now.”
Sylvia McCallum said Lynchmere Parish Council was concerned that Celtique Energie had no 3D mapping of the Fernhurst area, while Sue Taylor, from Balcombe (where Cuadrilla drilled an exploratory oil well last year) said no money had been put aside in case the company went out of business.
When asked whether the oil companies could extract oil from the Weald without fracking, Nick Riley said: “They don’t know because we have not had enough testing. There is huge speculation. We will only know when we have a set of representative sites of exploratory wells and at the moment we don’t have enough exploration.”
But in a show of hands, the audience voted overwhelmingly against exploration. Julie Wassmer, of East Kent Against Fracking, said the consequences of drilling could be pollution of drinking water, industrialisation of the countryside, fall in property prices and problems with house insurance.
John Buchanan, of Frack Free Fernhurst, said: “If we drill out the whole Weald we might get two months of oil. Is it really worth that?”