Residents living close to one of the UK’s most controversial proposed fracking sites have reacted with astonishment after it emerged fracking companies themselves may be placed in charge of surveying local opinion on whether drilling should go ahead.
Government sources have suggested that companies like Cuadrilla – rather than councils or any other independent body – will be mandated to test if the controversial procedure has support.
It raises the bizarre prospect of ministers waving through plans for a procedure known to cause earthquake on the basis that the outfit doing it has assured them people are happy to live with tremors.
“I have never heard anything so ludicrous in all my life,” said Barbara Richardson of Frack Free Lancashire. “I cannot think of a parallel to this ever happening. It goes against all democratic norms.
“Can we really see fracking companies going back to the government and saying, ‘Oh yes, actually, they don’t want us to drill so we won’t’. They will twist it everyway they can to get the verdict they want.”
Richardson herself, was among a group of women – the self-proclaimed Lancashire Nanas – who spent six years fighting proposed fracking sites at Roseacre and, more famously, Preston New Road, near the village of Little Plumpton.
They held mass demonstrations, created hugely popular petitions and, for a brief period, occupied one site. Oft-dressed in yellow tabards and head scarves, they created a sprawling protest camp, organised weekly vigils attended by hundreds of local people and blockaded vehicles headed for wells.
Eventually, in 2019 – after the group helped highlight how exploratory drilling had caused more than 15 significant tremors in just two weeks – Boris Johnson’s government backed down and effectively banned fracking not just in Lancashire but across the country.
Now, after new prime minister Liz Truss renegaded on a Conservative manifesto pledge to keep the process banned last month, the group are preparing to fight again.
Exactly how the new plans for fracking companies to test for so-called local consent would work remains unclear – but one suggestion is that business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg would ask fracking companies to show they had reached a threshold of support among nearby residents.
The companies, in turn, would be allowed to gain the support of residents through offering financial benefits or money off energy bills.
“Bribery, basically,” said Richardson, a retired IT professional. “And that still won’t work because the feeling against it round here is so strong. But the worry is now that these companies can essentially twist things to say there is support.”
In an excoriating interview with Radio Lancashire on Thursday, Ms Liz Truss declined to clarify the situation further.
“The energy secretary will be laying out in more detail exactly what that looks like but it does mean making sure there is local support for going ahead,” she said. “There are various details to be worked through.”
Labour has said it would ban fracking if elected at the next general election.