The UK is on the verge of becoming the only European country to pump shale gas and tap into potentially huge amounts of home-grown energy.
If, that is, it can get past an increasingly vocal band of anti-fracking activists.
The European shale gas revolution largely ended before it began. Protesters, armed with stories and expertise gathered in the United States, quickly rose up to block the controversial oil and gas drilling technique just as countries such as France, Germany, Poland and Bulgaria were starting to think about how to build on initial estimates of big new resources.
Britain refused to bend.
Grappling with fast-declining natural gas production in the British North Sea and the impending closure of dirty coal-fired power plants and old nuclear reactors, the Conservative government has remained steadfast in its support for shale gas — so much so that it unveiled a plan last summer to buy off local resistance with tax benefits and funding.
The push from London hasn’t stopped protesters in Kirby Misperton, a small village in the northern English county of Yorkshire, where the oil and gas company Third Energy plans to begin work to develop shale gas later this year. The demonstrators are building a tent city in a farmer’s field near the village, which they say will house hundreds by the time Third Energy moves onto the site.
Protests are already underway at England’s only other approved fracking location at Preston New Road in the northwest county of Lancashire, where demonstrators delay the energy firm Cuadrilla’s trucks as they try to drive onto the site each day.
The bubbling opposition has given hope to the otherwise deeply unpopular Labour Party.
“There is a fairly solid resistance to fracking up here, not just from environmentalists, but from people worried about earth tremors and the value of their homes decreasing,” said Cat Smith, a Lancashire Labour MP and shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs. “If there are votes in it for Labour, then great.”
Local governments tend to be similarly wary of the ecological risks of fracking, where drillers inject water deep underground at high pressure to fracture the rock and release trapped gas. The Lancashire County Council, for instance, tried to block the Preston New Road project in 2015, but was overturned by the U.K.’s Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.
London sees shale gas as a potential bonanza that could replace fading gas output in the North Sea. The country needs to shore up new and existing energy sources to protect it from blackouts over the next decade. Brexit adds to that urgency, throwing new doubts over planned electricity and gas links with other EU countries and potentially adding new tariffs to energy imports from the bloc.
So Javid’s decision on Preston New Road is unlikely to be unique. The government is poised to overturn another planning decision for Lancashire later this year, and will also have a final say over four other planning decisions now before local councils.
To ease the blow, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled new sweeteners last summer, promising councils that they can keep business taxes raised from fracking and creating a new shale fund that sets aside 10 percent of the tax proceeds from fracking to benefit local people.
“It’s about making sure people personally benefit from economic decisions that are taken,” May said when the decision was announced.