Fracking: Is a moratorium enough?

Councillor Georgia Taylor, representing Forest Row and Groombridge, East Sussex County Council, discusses the response to her ‘no to fracking’ motion – and what it tells us about the state of the Conservative Party.

Fracking in progress
Fracking in progress
Georgia Taylor

A few months ago, I proposed a ‘no to fracking’ motion to East Sussex County Council. This was just after the short-lived Truss government had lifted the moratorium. East Sussex is known as a possible shale oil/gas exploration region. While there are no current requests for licences, the Greens on ESCC wanted to make sure that there is a clear council policy that would prevent any future exploration or exploitation.

The reasons are clear and mostly uncontested: fracking is a dangerous way of extracting oil or gas and can lead to the contamination of water aquifers, the creation of toxic wastewater – and in some places earthquakes.

Fracking also relies on the excessive use of water at a time when droughts are likely to become more commonplace. It would likely lead to an increase in heavy industrial traffic at a time when our roads are in a serious state of deterioration. Most importantly, fracking and any oil or gas extraction will lead to more fossil fuel use and therefore more carbon emissions at a time when we must reduce our emissions urgently. 

As the moratorium was reinstated when the chaotic Conservative party changed their leader again, we were asked by the council to withdraw our ‘no to fracking’ motion. I decided to press on with it because government decision-making, especially to protect the environment and mitigate global heating, has been notoriously unstable over the last 12 months.

As expected, the motion was sent to the Lead Member for Transport and Environment to consider before it was put to the Full Council. She issued an amendment which became the substantive motion. It was a weakened motion, just agreeing with the Government’s position on reinstating the moratorium. And, of course, the dulled-down motion was duly passed, with every Conservative councillor voting in favour and my original (and stronger) motion fell.

While this was disappointing, it was not unexpected. What was surprising was the content of the background paper ESCC officers had prepared for the Lead Member. The paper explained that ESCC is the Minerals Planning Authority dealing with oil and gas matters – and would therefore be the presiding body considering any planning application for exploration or exploitation of fossil fuels, should the moratorium be lifted again.

The paper made the case that the Council cannot declare a clear policy against fracking as this would mean councillors would have a pre-determined view for any planning application. This is clearly nonsense. If this were the case, then ESCC would not be able to have any policies to protect nature and the people of East Sussex in the face of planning applications, which is clearly not true.

ESCC does have powers to approve policies that protect the people and nature in East Sussex. Whilst researching to counter the Conservative position I found that the National Planning Framework Policy Framework (NPPF) states that local planning should ‘shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions’. Local authorities must adopt proactive strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change in line with the provisions and objectives of the Climate Change Act 2008, and cooperate to deliver strategic priorities which include climate change.

I made this information available to all councillors in the Full Council meeting in December 2022 for the motion ‘debate’. I also reminded everyone (as we should all know by now) that net zero means no new fossil fuel extraction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the UK Climate Change Commission (CCC) have shown evidence that we can only reach zero carbon if there is no new exploration and extraction of fossil fuels. Exploration and extraction through fracking or otherwise in East Sussex would classify as new exploration and extraction and so would be contrary to the Climate Act and our own policies and commitments as a council.

The ‘debate’ in the Full Council meeting was strange as not one Conservative councillor spoke up (besides the Lead Member who just stated that the information was in her report). The Liberal Democrats supported the Green Party position, and a Labour Councillor made a ridiculous speech essentially supporting the Conservative position. Sadly, the Labour Councillor who had seconded the motion was absent due to illness.

While all the Conservatives voted together for their own weak position, I know through private conversations that several of them are against fracking. This always happens. And it confirms my conclusion that the Conservative party councillors are not encouraged to think for themselves, nor to use evidence for decision making – and nor are they enabled or willing to stand up for the safety of their residents.

Even more worrying is that central Conservative Party policy is almost certainly going to lift the moratorium at some stage in the near future, as the local party would not have taken such a strange and erroneous stance if they believed the moratorium would stay in place.

Be prepared.