Projects Must Strike Delicate Balance, Legal Experts Warn
By Rob Dixon
Fracking protests held across the UK have put the public’s concerns over major energy policies and plans into the spotlight and shown that efforts need to be made to ensure the voices of local people are heard, according to lawyers at Irwin Mitchell.
Fracking – the process of extracting shale gas from underground – has rarely been out of the media in recent weeks, with protests in Balcombe, West Sussex to stop test drilling in the area with concerns it will lead to large scale drilling in the near future.
Francis Egan, chief executive of energy firm Cuadrilla which is due to begin the drilling in Balcombe, has offered reassurances that the process is safe and would not ‘ruin’ countryside areas. But protestors – including locals as well as interest groups and environmental campaigners – are not convinced.
But the environmental debate expanded into a flurry of political animosity after Tory Peer Lord Howell suggested fracking would be more acceptable in ‘desolate’ areas of the North East. He has since apologised.
Justin Neal, a lawyer in Irwin Mitchell’s Public Law team who specialises in planning, environmental and local government issues, has seen concerns raised in the past over test drilling.
He outlined: “The issue of fracking and the viability of projects is new to the UK. Indeed, it could be argued that the recent controversies and protests mark the first time it has been widely scrutinised in media in England - although the debates have been ongoing for some time in the US.
“There are clearly a number of tensions at play on this issue. For instance, concerns remain over the safety of work to release shale gas, as well as the potential impact that it could have on the environment. The specific negative issues related to shale are linked to carbon emissions and groundwater pollution which could affect river ecology and drinking water.
“It is vital that any project strikes the delicate balance between the environmental impact, the effects of the industrialisation which would follow, pressures on local infrastructure and the overall actual energy need.
“In addition, the ongoing debate has shown that local communities are keener than ever to be kept updated of developments related to fracking projects.
“We would urge anyone concerned by fracking projects and energy issues in general to always seek advice from legal experts about what action they may be able to take to ensure that their voices – and the local community at large – can be heard.”
Emily Williams, a planning specialist based at Irwin Mitchell’s Manchester office, said: “New guidance was published just last month to provide support to industry, mining planning authorities and local communities at large regarding how shale gas – and other onshore oil and gas – developments should proceed through the planning system.
“Despite the various discussion and debate surrounding the issue, this will hopefully provide some encouragement to developers that the government does feel that such projects are a part of the future of the energy mix.
“It may also provide some more clarity to the public regarding how such projects should be operated and help to keep them informed of how these processes should function.”