As we enter the first days of the consultation, how do activists and industry make sense of the potential for fracking in Scotland? What are the narratives which are competing and that we are hearing from communities, advocates and politicians? Daniel McMahon explores the stories we’re being told.
We are not just facing the unconventional gas industry, but a glaring example of policy transfer from the United States, as the technology has its origins in Texan experiments, even as we see a new, more aggressive face of this country in the form of an inflammatory, demagogue of a president. This discussion piece hopes to consider this debate in the wider context of the right-wing dominance in the UK, as well as a Scotland which makes the claim to be doing things differently. There are so many stories which we can tell about what is going on, to engage people in the consultation and give structure to the dry technical data and definitions which characterise any discussion about unconventional gas. Here I have tried to debunk the one major, common sense understanding of fracking which industry and the Conservative party has in their bag of tricks to gain support for this project, revealing it to be woefully inadequate, as well as proposing four critical peoples’ narratives that we can use during community mobilizing efforts.
Fracking is an economic boom
In all cases, those supportive of the extreme fossil fuel projects use the language of GDP, growth and ‘jobs’ to argue their case. For Donald Trump, it seems like the DAPL (controversial Dakota Access Pipelines) is one of his much anticipated ‘infrastructure’ projects, yet it remains to be seen how those who commute along the US’s crumbling bridges, have lead paint in their schools and drinking water take this definition and statement of priorities. In the UK, which has been undergoing an economic reshaping by austerity policies, we are no doubt supposed to be pleased that our government is encouraging investment by cutting tax rate for fracking-inclined companies and ‘growing the pot’ (not the fun pot) that benefits us all.
Fracking in the UK and pipelines in the US are framed in these economic terms by advocates, attached to a vague notion of ‘jobs’, or ‘good jobs, just the best jobs, ‘you’re gonna love these great jobs’. In the context of the UK and US, where the economy is everything, where morality is often reduced to employment and honouring your debts and education is justified to generate ‘human capital’, such a narrative has a common-sense appeal.
Yet even in the crudest economic terms, the KPMG impact assessment produced for the Scottish Government shows that in the central, most likely scenario of 3 hypothetical development cases of the unconventional gas industry, it would only represent 0.1% of GDP in Scotland’s economy. In the most favourable scenario (from industry’s point of view), this rises to 0.3% and 3,100 jobs at peak (with many of these jobs being temporary). This is hardly the bounty which is being promised.
Fracking as Economisation of social problems
This viewpoint instead focuses on the uncertainty of the economic case for fracking, corporate greed and its likely impact on vulnerable populations and socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. It also focuses on how fracking is framed in terms of economic self-interest or a nationalistic duty to put our resources to use. Rather than seeing fracking as ‘growing the pot’, the metaphor in this instance is more likely ‘growing the pot to boil us in’ or ‘growing the nest for a cuckoo bird’s egg’ and focuses on cynicism of the economic case. In this frame, the estimates of likely jobs and economic benefits must be couched in a critical tradition, incorporating the context of the history of the companies involved in this process. We have the absurdity in Scotland of KPMG, a company who have been linked to helping high net-worth individuals and corporate clients to avoid tax, estimating the corporate tax revenues for the UK Treasury from tax-avoiders with form – INEOS, who own majority share of the licenses to explore in Scotland and previously moved their offices to Switzerland to swerve HMRC attention.
At the same time, one of two companies (Third Energy UK Gas Ltd.) who has the right to drill on one of the UK’s very few fully licensed fracking spots has failed to present their accounts for 2015! They face being struck off the Companies House Register if they do not submit these by the 6th of February. From previous years of reporting it looks very likely that they will be reporting a loss and might be in the position of looking to cut costs even as they begin a vastly complex operation in which they have no prior experience. Now, given that the one frack to take place in the UK, back in 2011, in Preese Hall near Blackpool had to be stopped due to seismic events, we might assume that this situation wouldn’t be allowed to happen, but this is where we are.
Last week, Donald Trump, as one of his first acts in high office, issued a memorandum to encourage the Army Corp. of Engineers to permit the Dakota Access Pipeline to be completed. Stretches of the pipeline, which was planned to traverse Native American treaty lands, had been halted by months of protest by activists at the Dakota based encampment as well as in sympathy protests and letters from around the globe. For many in the North West of England, this act will be an eerie echo of a much less dramatic news event from early Autumn, when Communities Secretary Sajid Javid in the UK government granted approval for fracking at the Preston New Road site in Little Plumpton, Lancashire. This is a case where one Conservative minister has reversed the decision of a Labour County Council. It also reflects back to the granting of approval for a well-site in Kirby Misperton by North Yorkshire council, even as objection submissions outnumbered support by a factor of 150:1. All these areas have been sites of protest, resistance and collective mobilisation. In all these cases, a hard-won win for the community has been snatched back by those in power. While North American activists have hounds released on them and constant sprays with rubber bullets, in Northern England, the man fights back with the pettiness of a court summons and £55,000 fines for the occupation of a field, as Tina Rothery (Lancashire Anti-fracking Nana) was taken to Court for.
So, while one slim wedge of the US public is cheering for Trump for getting things done, our UK elite class will be nodding as hydraulic drills meet soil on this island. A minority of the US electorate backed Trump yet are faced with his divisive wrath and Lancashire citizens have had their supportive council overruled and its jurisdiction re-defined by a remote Government. Fracking companies have yet to make a convincing case that their operations will create the economic boom that had been promised, not that this has stopped the Westminster government giving them free reign over what they know as ’the desolate North’. The spatial and economic polarization which has taken place in the US and UK in recent years has relegated regions like Lancashire, Yorkshire and Dakota to commodity colonies to the Square Mile and Wall Street.
In this frame, certain jurisdictions, such as France, Victoria (in Australia) and New York State start to look more democratic than others and Scotland has the mercy of a Parliament on the edge of its potential fracking area to register concerns. We have at least seen impact assessments on health, climate, economics, seismicity and transport, as well the promise of community consultation. North Dakota activists must face the environmental vandalism of a the DAPL environmental impact assessment halted after just one month. The second largest drinking water source in the nation (the Missouri River) will be traversed by an oil pipeline and this has received all the deliberation that would usually be weighted on a local planning application for a new conservatory or extension to a beer garden.
This frame is remarkably similar; from the ‘Nanas’ in Yorkshire and Lancashire to the native youth from the Sioux tribe in North Dakota, who, across the ocean and plains, across a generational and ethnic divide, manage to converge on this message. While the Sioux tribe fight to preserve their land ‘for seven generations’, Nanas fight for their grandkids and for the air and for the water. They know that the land and the physical environment connect all of us, in what Buddhist philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing, in which we cannot make decisions separated from the people and places who make us who we are. The lessons of biology, geography and psychology combining in our being, understanding the inherent co-dependency and wonderful connectivity of life, the gift of the sea algae, the service of the mushroom, the blessing of the river and the story shared from a co-inhabitant of Earth that subtly remakes the mind. On the negative side, we have the legacy of colonialism, the siting of environmental risks next to the communities who have the least say, pebbles thrown many generations ago which still reverberate in ripples called contamination, low life expectancies and anomie.
To Trump and much of the UK government, this language will mean that activists and industry are speaking as if in different tongues and only one side is getting the Ministerial ear. Yet maybe there is a chance for a more spiritually and socially conscious debate in Scotland’s halls of relative power. A debate that recognises the innate connectivity to the living world and the need to apply a principle of ‘corporeal generosity’, in doing no harm to the earth and taking seriously our duty to inhabitants of this climate and community members who are in different social positions.
Fracking as Dirt
The image of a flame coming out of a tap was one of the most powerful symbols of the North American anti-fracking movement. In Scotland, such a potent image has combined with concerns about subsidence and the ground giving way, cracks in the foundations of homes and the reemergence of latent collective memories of mining disasters. Part of the success of the anti-fracking movement no doubt comes from this category dissonance, that members of the public can decide very quickly that fracking is a ‘dirty’ industry. Anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that we decide what is dirt not based on objective reasoning, but based on social expectations and learned categories and associations. Fracking, especially the citizen’s accounts from North America and Australia, represent this societal untethering, as much as a biological and physical threat, meaning we cannot trust agencies and systems which we have been reliant upon our entire lives. The organic solidarity of contemporary society is now timorous and frail as it has been gas-lighted over several generations by an assertive and demanding capital and corruption.
The emotive idea of polluted water, a stream running through our taps that doesn’t nourish but injures, the boundaries between the private and the public, the home and public sphere permeated not by a protective Nanny state but corporate risky business, in the form of stray pollutants and invisible gases. Families have legitimate concerns about how to protect their children. How do jobs for earning a living meet with the even more elemental components of a healthy life, such as safe fresh air and water? In western Europe, affordable, clean water has been taken for granted by many and we are seeing a retrenchment and conditionality attached to this right.
Yet if Scotland is to embrace a Scandinavian common weal and of very high welfare standards surely this risk is to great. If Norway is acclaimed for its’ fjords and Finland for its’ lakes, then surely Lochs make Scotland, the mirrors to the Northern lights. Do we bathe in them and cleanse ourselves of the neoliberal dirt of our nation state? And how can we see our reflections in a loch or in a glimpse in rapid Carron or Clyde gushes if we taint the water?
Let us tell some tales
In the bleak political landscape of the UK, where the most pressing social problems of the news day are panics about immigration and the surveillance of any perceived attempt to frustrate or slow the Brexit process, these are some powerful narratives that those of us on the left can use to break through. It is so important that we have a decisive chorus of ‘no way’ to unconventional gas in the Scottish Government’s community consultation. But more than this, the left can orientate policy towards locality and establish ourselves as the orators, the go to storytellers, the voice for the voiceless and the agenda-setters.
We now have a chance to have a very powerful impact by getting fracking banned in Scotland, and I hope that we can not only do that but have this environment of idea germination be the incubator for the ideas that can take on the Trumps and Mays and Farages. They might seem jubilant right now, but then this is just the end of Act 2 and there is a lot to be decided before a denouement. All the right has going for them are strong-men leaders, easy words to recant over a pint, they leave us with nothing solid that can meet the day, while we are offering community emancipation and empowerment.
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