The Chester town hall was an appropriately grand setting for a nationally significant planning hearing yesterday (15 January), although quite what Sir Richard Grosvenor – the city’s MP in 1732, now frozen in oil as a bewigged and befrocked grandee staring solemnly down over the proceedings – would have made of it all, I find hard to imagine.
The hall was crowded with residents from Ellesmere Port, where energy company IGas wants to conduct tests for shale gas, as well as supporters from around the North West and beyond. Many were clad in luminescent yellow jackets printed with ‘No fracking way’ and similar slogans – for the yellow jacket as both a signifier and a practical safety measure was something protectors around the country adopted long before the gilets jaunes expanded our French vocabulary.
The grander attire at ground level was concentrated up the front, with the legal representatives for the council who turned down an application from IGas to operate in Ellesmere Port in 2018, the residents who fervently support that position in the form of Frack Free Ellesmere Port and Upton, and the company that has refused to accept that decision.
Whatever happens with the outcome of the inquiry, yesterday was a historic moment
I’ve been to many planning inquiries covering proposed fracking and related developments, mostly where the local council has said ‘no’ and the would-be fossil fuel-extractors have appealed, as here. They just keep not taking ‘no’ for an answer.
In Chesterfield Town Hall for Marsh Lane, in Rotherham Town Hall for Harthill, in the incongruous setting of Blackpool Football Club’s stadium for Roseacre Wood (a hearing on which we’re expecting a verdict any day), I’ve sat through detailed technical testimony about traffic control plans, road widths and capacities, noise levels and operating hours.
These were inquiries fought on the minutiae of the planning system. Chester yesterday was very, very different. For one of the grounds on which Cheshire West and Chester Council turned down IGas’s application was failure to mitigate against the climate change impacts – and the witnesses being called by the council and residents were climate change experts.
Whatever happens with the outcome of the inquiry, yesterday was a historic moment. A decision that had been made at least in significant part on climate change grounds, was being defended on those same grounds; it is obvious that the old way of doing things, the oil and gas industry way, is on the way out.
Not before time, you might say, given research led by the University of Leeds was being released as we sat in Chester, showing that it is possible to avoid catastrophic climate change, to keep global temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees – but only if the phaseout of fossil fuels begins immediately. That is, if no new infrastructure is commissioned.
That means testing a potential gas well in Ellesmere Port is out of the question.
IGas has made no plan to mitigate the emissions from its tests
As the campaigners’ counsel pointed out, IGas is far behind the times. It has not even calculated the emissions of its planned testing, or called a climate change expert to back its case – surely an admission of the weakness of the ridiculous claims still sometimes heard that shale gas is somehow ‘low carbon’.
The campaigners’ expert has made those calculations – and found the shocking fact that the planned 74 days of testing at Ellesmere Port may produce between 3.7 and 17.6 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions; that’s 1.6 per cent of Cheshire West and Chester’s annual industrial emissions.
IGas has made no plan to ‘mitigate’ (reduce) those emissions, or to make best use of renewable energy, as set put out in the local plan adopted by Cheshire West and Chester Council.
The company was arguing before the planning inspector that the Environment Agency (EA) had not objected to its plans. But the EA is not the planning authority. And the Council’s counsel noted memorably that: “We do not accept the Secretary of State can do no wrong.” I think that we can all agree that while there are religious claims for infallibility, no one would make them for a government minister.
As we sat in Chester, I had to keep flicking on to social media to follow events in faraway Westminster: the vote that saw Theresa May so massively defeated last night, which is being far more often described as ‘historic’ than these events in Chester.
There was a lot of hot air down there in London. But it was in Chester that the existential threat of climate change was being addressed, the future of the human race defended, by a local council and campaigners who’ve given up much for the cause.
We need to see the same passion and dedication to tackling climate change in Westminster, and a government with policies that meet the standards achieved in Cheshire.
The hearing continues into next week. Updates can be read on the invaluable Drill or Drop.
This article focuses on the climate change arguments, but the council and campaigners are also arguing that the proposal is also unsuitable for the area, which borders two wards that are among the poorest 10 per cent in the country, already badly affected by air and other pollution, and incompatible with new economic development plans.