‘Shame on you!’ was the chant from anti-fracking campaigners as they walked out of a council shale gas inquiry dubbing the whole process ‘a sham’.
Fiona Young, from Frack Free Malpas, led the pre-arranged walk-out from Cheshire West and Chester Council’s HQ building involving community representatives from across the borough concerned about the potential health impact of fracking for underground methane trapped in the shale layer.
Others shouted at councillors: “Listen to your hearts’ and ‘You’re supposed to represent us not the dirty oil companies!’.
Mrs Young, who addressed the all-party working group during public speaking time, said the ‘final straw’ came last week when the Conservative-led council refused to debate a Labour motion calling for a ban on exploratory drilling and gas extraction until safety issues had been addressed.
“It has been painful to witness how heavily weighted the inquiry has been in favour of the industry. How can you even pretend to be looking at both sides when the vast majority of invited speakers have been pro-fracking?” said Mrs Young, who characterised the council as being ‘Hell bent on pushing ahead with this mad dash for gas’.
“The lack of democracy shown throughout this process has been truly shocking. The clues were there from the start, of course, when we realised that our council had already let us down badly by granting permission for exploratory drilling without consultation. We now know that exploratory drilling is just as detrimental and harmful.
“But on top of that, Ellesmere Port has been granted a 20-year production licence, again without consulting the public or the full council. We feel totally let down by our council which has failed to engage with the community.”
But Cllr Mark Williams, the Conservative chairman of the working group, insisted at the start of the meeting that the process had been fair and open-minded.
He said: “The council does not have a policy in support or against gas extraction and is keen to allow representatives and experts on both sides to be given an opportunity to contribute evidence.”
While the protest walk-out was designed to embarrass the ruling Tory administration it also exposed splits within the Labour Party. Panel member and Labour Blacon councillor Reggie Jones joined campaigners in the walk-out having earlier declared he had ‘now moved to a position’ where he was opposed to fracking.
Chester Labour parliamentary candidate Chris Matheson agreed, telling the meeting: “Last Thursday a motion to council proposing a moratorium was blocked by a majority vote by the Conservative group. This gives the impression of acting in the interests of fracking companies not local people and it gives the impression of avoiding open debate potentially for electoral reasons.”
But sitting Ellesmere Port and Neston Labour MP Andrew Miller, an invited key speaker, said shale gas could help sustain the local chemical industry and is convinced it can be safe under the UK regulatory regime.
He said: “We need to be mindful of the potential benefits of this industry to our established chemical industry. We have a chemical sector that’s under enormous pressure and if we’re not careful, because of the way that some markets are working, we are going to lose a huge chunk of our chemical sector to countries where energy prices are cheaper.
“So, if we can in this community, and I say this as a resident of this community, if we can drive down those costs, we can as a consequence help to sustain those high value jobs in the chemical sector that are part of the environment in which we live.”