Fracking bans, Election Giveaways and the Fight for the Future

How should the Tory moratorium on fracking be understood in the context of their efforts to reshape society and the state to render them even more subject to the logic of the market.

It may have caught you off guard to find that that the Tories had “banned” fracking, just a few days into the election campaign. The party that were once going “all out for shale”, now turning their back on an industry that they had believed had the potential to launch a UK shale gas boom to mirror the US, now that the reality looks like (literal) earthquakes in the Tory shires.

You were probably not surprised to see reports less than a week later that this “ban” wasn’t quite as solid as you were led to believe. Nonetheless, the ‘temporary stoppage of fracking until further unspecified evidence is presented to or by the government’ will likely put more investors off the fledgling industry. It has been described as a stunt, but it is still a major shift from 7 years ago when the last moratorium on fracking in England was lifted.

What follows is a brief account of the fracking story leading to this “ban”. It is more than simply an electoral calculation, and the battle over shale gas tells us a little bit about the role of cynicism, resistance and what a Tory government might have planned for the future as it moves away from austerity and advancing the development of the market society.

The Battle over Fracking

Sir Ed Davey has decided to style himself as an elder statesman since the knighthood he received for his part in assisting the Conservative party to deliver the austerity agenda that has destroyed communities and kills one person a week where I live in Newcastle. Back in 2012 when he was the Secretary of State for Energy, he lifted the last fracking moratorium, drawing upon a set of expert reports to declare that fracking could be done safely as long as there was strict monitoring of potential earth tremors.

This saw the creation of the “traffic light system” - a real masterpiece of technocratic intervention. It has several stages, reporting procedures, and requires multiple bodies to assess the data produced alongside significant self-regulation. This approach to governance meant that the Coalition government did not engage with the political substance of fracking, of the questionable need for more fossil fuels and the antagonism towards the process from local communities, rather they more or less took it as given that extraction was needed and the imperative was to make sure peoples taps didn’t catch fire. Those who objected were treated as unreasonable, because they couldn’t prove that fracking was a risk to safety.

Those affected by fracking sites didn’t trust the government to keep them safe, and didn’t believe the hype about shale gas. The anti-fracking movement grew into a network of local grassroots groups, environmental NGOs, national campaigning groups, as well as groups focusing on research and launching legal challenges to planning decisions and policy changes. The government were taken aback when Lancashire County Council rejected an application from Cuadrilla in 2015. They used a series of ministerial statements to justify overturning this decision at a national level, all the while declaring the process to be safe and dismissing the various testimonies to the contrary.

The resistance on the streets and in the courts continued. In March this year, Talk Fracking won their case to show that the government’s new national planning policy (the NPPF) included a paragraph on shale gas that had failed to take into account important evidence. This meant that this paragraph was removed. Despite this, the government left the lingering threat of relaxing planning laws and even the “traffic light system” hanging over communities for months without any detail whilst Boris Johnson and co voted several times to not get Brexit done.

Last August saw the vindication of the anti-fracking movement. Attempts to frack by Cuadrilla regularly exceeded the limits of the ‘traffic light system’, with one earthquake reaching a magnitude of 2.9 (the limit for temporary shutdown is 1.0). It was felt at the surface and caused damage to buildings. Just over 8 years since the first fracking in the UK had shook the ground, it had happened again. Those local residents who had been ambivalent ceased to be, and the Oil and Gas Authority decided to call a stop to fracking at the Preston New Road site until they had reviewed the seismic data.

This month, the government made two announcements. A moratorium was announced on fracking, on the basis that there was not enough data on the geology of the areas where fracking was taking place, meaning the process could not be said to be safe. This ban is temporary, it would be lifted if new evidence came to light.

The second announcement seemed to contradict the first. In a response to a consultation on the planning process for shale gas, the government said:

…future applications will be considered on their own merits by the Secretary of State in accordance with the law, the shale gas industry should take the Government’s position [the ban] into account.”

This certainly makes it difficult to see how an application could pass, and the government may be just trying to avoid the court case an outright ban would likely bring. Even so, this still leaves the possibility of fracking open if it can be shown to be “safe”. Activists know all too well that it has been ‘shown to be safe’ before.

An Election Giveaway?

The straightforward interpretation is that this is just an election giveaway. Fracking takes place in a lot of Tory constituencies, and it is problem they don’t need. It also doesn’t look like fracking will make that much money.

The fracking industry weren’t helped by the fact that their original cheerleader, Lord Browne, spoke against the need to extract shale gas. He had been key to lobbying the Coalition on fracking when he was at Cuadrilla, gaining legislative concessions in the Infrastructure Act.

The Tories have announced other similar shifts. Increases in R&D spending, some money for hospitals and schools, not cutting corporation tax even more. They seem to be trying to show that austerity is over, that there is a better future ahead if they can ‘unleash Britain’s potential’.

This may be true in terms of bottom line spending (though I wouldn’t take their word for it), but to focus simply on this misses the underlying logic of the ‘austerity’ period from 2010-17. The rhetoric of cost-cutting and fiscal sobriety was incredibly powerful, but what it supported was a political project of increasing central control and disciplinary methods that curtail resistance.

This takes the shape of pushing some of the most drastic cuts onto (largely Labour) local councils, totally eviscerating them as political bodies capable of representing citizens and standing up to government, as well as the restructuring of welfare systems towards a punitive model in the form of Universal Credit and PIP assessments and the Home Office project of creating a Hostile Environment for migrants. There is no suggestion that these areas will change and all of these must be understood as part of austerity.

The reason the fracking story is important is because during the austerity period, it showed that the government were relaxed about spending public money if required (for policing protests e.g.), but importantly the effective and multi-level resistance from the anti-fracking movement pushed the government(s) to show their authoritarian tendencies, by effectively forcing an industry on to communities.

Alongside this came a sustained campaign of vilification, and continual shifting of the formal procedural goalposts that aimed to demoralise and punish activists. Injunctions were taken out against forms of peaceful protest, activists were imprisoned and subjected to police violence. As well as overturning local decisions against cash strapped councils, new laws, policies and procedures were introduced at every turn. Consultations on these changes took years, leaving the possibility of more draconian measure hanging over communities, ramping up anxiety and leading to mental health issues for those involved.

This system of punishment, for anti-frackers as for migrants, was the underlying purpose of ‘austerity’. So whilst we might see the Tories increasing spending in some areas, we have no reason to think that this punitive logic is going anywhere. The ‘fracking ban’ captures this perfectly, because it doesn’t take a stance against fracking, rather it leaves open a technocratic avenue for fracking to be reintroduced. This pushes it past the election, but it also means that the people who have committed years of their lives to fighting against an industry still cannot relax despite many of their concerns, that the government dismissed, being justified this year.

The Future

The ‘fracking ban’ is clearly rooted in cynicism, they hope that it will dampen the broader hostility to fracking that extends beyond activists, through the Campaign to Protect Rural England and across Tory constituencies in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The “ban” leaves it open to try again as soon as evidence is presented to central government, with the threat still hanging to remove local authority decision making for fracking. The fracking story shows that as soon as this level of governance showed itself to receptive to the influence of a political movement, it becomes cast as a problem and a blockage.

This approach to fracking could be a glimpse into the future. One of the key Tory announcements is for an £800million investment in a new ARPA funding body. This would aim to support high risk and ‘blue sky’ technology, though it is not clear who will determine what receives funding or not.Looking through Dominic Cummings writing on the model, it may be based around removing bureaucratic and democratic blockages to decision making, using data and AI to reduce the human (and therefore deliberative) aspect of political decision making in favour of a centrally directed technocracy based on massive data sets and led by “true expertise and high performance teams” that use “visualise interactive quantitive models of complex systems” for “error-correction” He sees this as a model for government in general, with the ARPA aspect providing the technological solutions to problems as well as creating new markets.

There has this week been a focus on page 48 of the Tory Manifesto, which promises changes to the role of the judiciary and as changes to boundaries and voting rights in their favour. This is not government as ‘management’, instead the wave of Brexit populism is being used to create an increasingly centralised neoliberal state. Stuart Hall identified Thatcherism as utilising on an ‘authoritarian-populism’, and this is being remade but this time with this highly technocratic characteristic. The main enemy this time isn’t state industry or trade unions, it is the political processes of liberal-democratic government that are portrayed as messy, incoherent, slow and hampered by all of these problematic human beings with their own ideas and perspectives (planning, the judiciary, parliament). The removal of deliberative processes makes it possible for the super-fast logic of the market to become as close as is possible to a universal rationality for decision making, cutting further the space and possibilities for popular political change.

The success of the Tories’ post-austerity project relies on a continued weariness and cynicism from the public as the State is reshaped along these lines. This is where the anti-frackers have shown us the way. Their continued resistance has shocked the government, pushing them onto the back foot. What they have done, more than anything, is cut through the cynicism and the post-political acceptance of there being no alternative. The anti-fracking movement refused to be limited to the merely technical (though they did successfully fight on these terms to), and forced the governments hand to take increasingly authoritarian action which undermined their credibility.

This is also what Labour at their best have done too. To win, we need to fight the cynicism and anxiety as well as the vision. We go and tell everyone that it doesn’t have to be like this until they listen. We have to show that the future the Tories imagine is one set against widely held notions of democracy and justice. We have to insist upon the importance of politics, from Parliament to the streets.

More than anything else, we need to be relentlessly positive about our own plans. If we have even half of the strength of the anti-fracking movement, then the future is ours.