The message from Downing Street could not be clearer: David Cameron announced on Sunday the government would be going “all out” for fracking, in an effort to bring to the UK the shale gas revolution that has sent gas prices plummeting in the US, and transformed huge swathes of its landscape.
Cameron’s plans involve a giveaway of millions to communities that allow fracking, through a scheme whereby councils will retain all of the business rates liable on the sites, and payments to local communities from fracking companies of £100,000 upfront and 1% of revenues thereafter. These measures are supposed to unleash a wave of investment in hydraulic fracturing, the controversial method of extracting gas from dense rocks by blasting them with high-pressure water and chemicals.
The timing could not have been better, as the French company Total confirmed plans for the first big investment by a major oil company in fracking in the UK.
If the prime minister’s plan is to win over opponents of fracking, he has plenty of work to do. The first major poll on fracking, carried out by the Guardian last year, found public opinion evenly split, with 40% in favour of fracking near their homes, 40% against and the rest undecided. Protests around the country have resulted in arrests, gathered angry meetings in town halls, and given rise to warnings from environmental campaigners of the dangers of water stress, pollution and climate change.
Cameron’s enthusiasm for fracking – in stark contrast to the Conservatives’ increasing rhetoric against renewables and “green” energy – highlights the number of unanswered questions on fracking in the UK.