When parish councillor Chris Hesketh volunteered to form a local group to challenge plans to drill for gas in north Shropshire, he had little idea how people would respond. The rural constituency, held by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, is the safest Tory seat in the country and only rarely in 175 years has there been much opposition to the sitting MP.
In the event, more than 300 people packed the village hall, a local businessman pledged to run as an anti-fracking candidate in the next election, and a protest camp was set up. A record 481 objections have been made against the plans.
“The response was electric. It snowballed from minimum interest to over 50% of people in the area wanting to be involved”, said Hesketh.
Frack Free Dudlestone is typical of the 160 anti-fracking groups that have mushroomed in the last year. Fear over the effect on house prices, anger about potential pollution and disruption to communities, and disquiet that frackers will be allowed to drill below properties without asking permission has made fracking a toxic issue among the Tory grassroots.
Research by the Guardian and Greenpeace suggests that more than 120 Tory MPs face protest groups in their constituencies. Of the 40 key marginal seats identified in the party’s election strategy, 31 fall in areas where exploratory drilling is about to start or has been permitted. Only seven cabinet members will not be affected. Of the 160 protest groups, 70% are in Tory areas, and just 15% in Labour held areas. The remainder of the groups cover several seats.
“The number of anti-fracking community groups has exploded in the last year. There were roughly 40 groups this time last year, now there are over 160 with about 10 new groups forming each month”, said Sarah Mackie, a Frack Off campaigner.
“People are really angry. They can see the devastation caused by the industry in the US where 100,000 of these wells have been drilled in the last decade and now find that their community is facing the same threat”
The government says fracking will increase energy security and provide valuable tax income for the exchequer. But this does not seem to have convinced many people faced with the prospect of drilling rigs close to their homes.
“When the new licences are announced, a lot of people are going to wake up and realise fracking could be coming to their doorstep next year with all the disruption, toxic effects and massive impacts on house prices, and availability and cost of insurance associated with the fracking industry across the world. This issue has the potential to generate massive local opposition,” said Anne Patterson, of Gasfield Free Coventry, adding that the Tory marginal constituency of North Warwickshire could be vulnerable.
Some Tory MPs are calling for a rethink. Former minister Nick Herbert is opposing attempts by Celtique Energie to frack in his Arundel constituency. “West Sussex isn’t Texas. It cannot become a carelessly industrialised landscape. [The company] failed to provide accurate information on traffic to assuage the community’s biggest concern.
“Instead, their chief executive branded objectors as ‘selfish and unpatriotic’. The oil and gas industry could not have wished for a worse advocate for its earliest fracking applications”, he wrote in a local paper last month.
Tory council chiefs have said they will oppose fracking in the George Osborne’s shale-rich Tatton constituency. Cheshire East council, which covers the majority of Tatton, has declared it will remain “fracking-free”, while Mike Jones, the leader of Cheshire West and Chester council, which covers the remainder of the seat, said he “wouldn’t be minded to support” fracking unless cash benefits for communities were increased.
Tory MP Anne McIntosh, who chairs the environment, food and rural affairs select committee, said: “What is unknown is what will be the damage to a small island like ours? They don’t know – we don’t have the landmass of America and Australia where fracking takes place. We need to know there’s no environmental disadvantage in the long-term, that the countryside won’t be damaged.”
Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Simon Clydesdale said the issue of fracking had become “politically toxic” and could cost political parties dearly at the polls. “Local support for fracking is ebbing away. Long-standing Tory voters are incandescent, comparing it to Thatcher’s poll tax or Blair’s Iraq war. This has the potential to mobilise the Tory heartlands in the same way as the hunting ban did.”