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Fracking hell for Cuadrilla

August, 2013

What started originally as local opposition has quickly gone national, with hundreds of environmentalists descending on Balcombe in West Sussex. Can fracking operator Cuadrilla turn the situation around, or has it, and the government, lost the middle ground? And what lessons can be learnt for others considering potentially contentious planning applications?

Few people locally will have missed the media coverage of the protest camp set up by environmentalists and anti-fracking ‘No Dash for Gas’ activists, and it seems they are winning the hearts and minds campaign.

Despite scientific evidence to suggest that fracking – hydraulic fracturing to extract gas through drilling – is not a problem, there are those in the opposition camp that refute these arguments.

The problem, as too often happens, is that the opposition can largely say what they like, with little recourse to demonstrate accuracy or proof. And as we know – it is those people who shout the loudest who get heard, and win the debate.

The vocal minority

Maxim has been brought in on many development projects where a small vocal minority has already successfully mobilised local opposition. As a result the opposition has the local media’s ear and weakened the prospect of support from the elected members of the local authority who often have an eye on the next elections. The project team then find themselves fighting a rearguard action, and although not impossible to turn around, it is always better to be proactive and brief local stakeholders early.

Then it’s about developing a clear, concise case that’s delivered consistently through the project’s website, newsletters, public exhibition, and importantly through the media, and briefings for community groups.

When faced with a group of opponents the natural reaction is to withdraw. Or in the case of planning, accept that you’ll lose the application at planning committee, but win the day on appeal. However, that defeatist approach brings with it extra cost, weakened community relationships and angst.

Planning ahead, and putting the time and effort into briefing key individuals and organisations before a project goes live, can pay dividends. If an MP hears about a project first from a vocal resident, you can guarantee they’ll struggle to argue your case. Briefing MPs and Council leaders must be a priority as they’ll be the first to be asked for an opinion.

National influence

Although many developments play out locally, they are often influenced by national policies or events. With regards to Cuadrilla, part of the problem is that the fracking debate was inflamed with an apparent ‘dash for cash’ by the Treasury, after the Chancellor George Osborne announced the fledgling fracking industry will pay 30% tax on profits, less than half the 62% paid by conventional oil and gas producers.

Lord Howell, chairman of Windsor Energy Group, and the Chancellor’s father-in-law, then exacerbated the situation when he called for drilling in the “desolate” North. In an attempt to calm the situation, David Cameron said: “I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits - north or south, Conservative or Labour. We are all in this together”. Those comments must have sent a seismic shiver down the spine of many Conservative MPs in marginal Middle England.

Cuadrilla’s national PR agency has also been dragged into the story, with the offices of Bell Pottinger being targeted. Protesters glued themselves to the entrance doors, the agency’s High Holborn offices were scaled and a ‘Bell Pottinger – fracking liars’ banner unfurled.

As too often happens, a company, in this case Cuadrilla, with the legitimate right to undertake what it is doing at Balcombe, finds itself at the centre of media maelstrom. The challenge for the business, and the politicians, is how to secure a balanced debate, one based upon solid and irrefutable evidence, not raw emotion. In the absence of a proper debate, the public will swing behind the vociferous environmental opposition.

Cuadrilla may have lost the battle of Balcombe. The question is: will it, and the fracking industry, be better prepared for the next conflict, and can it retake the high ground in the latest energy versus environment war?

Andrew Metcalf - Director

Andrew Metcalf

Maxim / Director

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