The prospect of fracking for shale gas in Lancashire has already had a profound effect on local people, according to new research.
A study by Anna Szolucha, of the University of Bergan in Norway, found that even before exploration had begun residents living near proposed sites had experienced stress and anxiety.
Much of this was caused by what she described as “a profound sense of moral outrage” at the activities of the gas company, local authorities and the government.
This had led to depression, annoyance and feelings of disenfranchisement, she said.
Residents also reported:
- Atmosphere of intimidation and fear
- Feelings of powerlessness
- Conflicts between former friends
- Disillusionment with politics and politicians
- Lack of confidence in the shale gas company, Cuadrilla
- Distrust of council officers and regulators
- Changed perceptions of the police
The 123-page report, The Human Dimension of Shale Gas Developments in Lancashire, concluded that Cuadrilla and decision-makers in Lancashire had failed to take account of social and psychological factors when considering plans for fracking at two sites in the county. This “significantly understated” the actual and potential impacts, she said.
“From a social point of view, assessing shale gas exploration as a low-impact activity is unsupported by evidence”.
Dr Szolucha argued that
“The anxiety and deep feelings against shale gas exploration and extraction in Lancashire have shown that it is not considered a desirable and necessary development.
“It is unlikely at this point that any assurance from the government or the proposed regulation and mitigation measures will convince the residents to support shale gas development”.
The report comes as the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Sajid Javid, is considering whether to approve Cuadrilla’s application to frack at Preston New Road and Roseacre Wood. In June 2015, Lancashire County Council refused both applications. The decision on Preston New Road was against the advice of the council’s planning officer. The final outcome is expected before 6 October.
Stress and fear
Dr Szolucha’s research concluded:
“Without exception, all members of the communities that were engaged in the planning process and grassroots activism reported significant levels of stress and anxiety”.
She said sources of stress included public speaking and working with the police, media and stakeholders. Residents talked of the “constant struggle for money” and the need to be able to read, understand and co-ordinate a response to documents from Cuadrilla and the authorities, often at short notice.
The planning process had “taken over their lives”, she said, but at the same time, it had led them to value their local landscape more.
Dr Szolucha said residents reported feelings of fear and stress about the potential impacts that exploration and extraction could have on social well-being and health in local communities.
“Anxiety has been amplified by a widespread sense of annoyance, disenfranchisement and powerlessness caused by the attitudes of the company and the UK government.”
Government statements supporting shale gas and the focus of the planning system on material considerations had made people feel their concerns were not being addressed, she said. This has led to, and exacerbated, a range of health effects.
“Even if stringent regulatory regimes and robust mitigation measures aiming to minimise the risk of pollution or accident were to be applied, they may not be sufficient in alleviating local fears and in reducing the level of perceived risk by the residents.”
Safety and security
Dr Szolucha said the prospect of shale gas had “significantly undermined feelings of personal safety”. She said some people reported an atmosphere of intimidation, distrust and secret surveillance. Some felt the legal system was not adequately protecting them from restrictions on their democratic rights.
“Residents feel that the shale gas development introduced unnecessary security personnel and a higher police presence in the area. They also led to securitisation of places directly adjacent to the shale gas sites where residents were photographed while approaching the fields”.
According to the research, people no longer trusted the police generally, feeling that they put the interests of companies and government above the rights of residents. But many residents said they had a good relationship with local Lancashire police officers and wanted this to continue.
People involved in the research had experienced the effects of criminalisation of protests and protesters. Yet despite this, most said they would take part or support direct action against fracking.
Fractured community and grassroots mobilisation
The research found that the prospect of shale gas development in Lancashire had already disrupted relations within local communities.
Residents reported that the proposals had “reopened fractures between certain members of the communities and has isolated some of the landowners”.
But the local campaign against shale gas had created a new sense of community and for some people this had helped alleviate stress.
Social impacts “inadequately assessed”
Cuadrilla carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment of its proposed sites and produced an environmental statement running to hundreds of pages.
But Dr Szolucha said local residents believed the social impacts of shale gas had been “inadequately assessed” during public consultations and the planning and appeal process.
They thought the planning process prevented the consideration of social and health information alongside the technical and environmental data provided by regulators and the company. This could, the study concluded, influence the outcomes of planning and political decision-making, against the interests of local communities.
The study also found that residents perceived that staff from the council and regulators as influenced by the government and/or the company and unable to make impartial decisions.
An independently produced social impact assessment, which analysed the human consequences of a development, should be taken into account in all decisions about shale gas, the study concluded.
Dr Szolucha said there were “feelings of deep distrust” towards Cuadrilla. Residents lacked confidence in the company and had contested its data and analysis.
“They are also dissatisfied with the way the company has been dealing with their concerns. … The company’s failure to consider the possibility of accidents amplifies the perceived level of risk”.
Local donations made by the company were seen as aimed at convincing communities to support shale gas exploration rather than as contributing to local development, she said.
Compensation to landowners was viewed as a way to “overcome local resistance and could potentially constitute a socially divisive conduct by the company”.
People also felt that proposed community benefit payments of £100,000 per exploration site and 1% of shale gas revenues were aimed primarily at convincing communities to support shale gas.
“Local residents are not convinced that the payment would necessarily directly benefit the communities as it could be administered as charity and any organisation might apply to it for funds”.
The study said it had invited Cuadrilla to take part in the study, along with the Lancashire County Council planning officer, the industry-funded North West Energy Task Force and landowners who had leased land but none had agreed.
We asked Cuadrilla to respond to Dr Szolucha’s findings but the company declined.
According to the research, shale gas developments in Lancashire had made some residents disillusioned with politics and politicians.
For some, the experience had challenged their long-held political beliefs. Former Conservative voters said they had stopped supporting the party, Dr Szolucha said.
“The UK government is perceived as imposing shale gas extraction on recalcitrant citizens, which nullifies its democratic mandate”.
Councillors also described pressures on them to consider only certain aspects or impacts – contributing a sense of imbalance of power between local authorities and the gas industry, Dr Szolucha said
The move by the then Communities and Local Government Secretary, Greg Clark to take the final decision on Cuadrilla’s applications was seen by Lancashire residents who took part in the research as “a denial of democracy and human rights”. One said: “It’s no longer about fracking, it’s about democracy”.
Dr Szolucha added: “There is a sense that the government has already pre-determined its decisions”
“Residents are receivers of information”
The research also reported criticism of Cuadrilla’s community engagement process.
It said residents felt “they have been treated as mere receivers of information rather than serious consultees”.
“The lack of evidence that the company has taken the concerns of the local residents into account in readjusting their plans has amplified feelings of being dismissed by the industry and has fostered the view that the consultations organised by Cuadrilla were not meaningful”.
Link to report