Fracking and the railways

People in towns and villages across the UK are currently wondering what it might mean should onshore oil and gas development, and fracking, come to a field near them, in a situation very reminiscent of our industrial past.  Industry veteran, Glynn Williams, and chairman of OESG founder member Clear Solutions, takes a look back to see what lessons can be learnt.


As they try to get to grips with the practical realities of how energy is created, possibly for the first time, local residents are confronted by a litany of claims about potential adverse impacts – claims that are no doubt steering some people to reject the idea of extracting shale gas by fracking in places like Lancashire and Yorkshire, for example.

It puts me in mind of a historic analogue, with many similarities to the current debate about onshore oil and gas: the development of the railways.


Infrastructure: a Victorian problem too

During the development of the Victorian railway network, many common people were frightened by the sight and implications of railroads. One parish clerk, after seeing a locomotive for the first time, was quoted as saying: “That was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again! How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?”

But as early as 1830, the Victorians realised that the railways were there to stay. Many recognised their advent as the most important development of the age. Yet exactly how, and where, this great new power was to be harnessed was the topic of a continuing debate.

The first phase of opposition, extending roughly from 1825 to 1844 during which a large number of lines were sanctioned by Parliament, was marked by an almost universal aversion to the railways.

Formerly objects of scorn or indifference, the railways were suddenly thrust into the public eye with the success of George Stephenson’s “Rocket.”

Those who recognised the potential of the railway seemed overwhelmed by negative public response. Almost all railway construction during this period was contested in one form or another, as each line had to be sanctioned by Parliament. A system of railway hearings was established in the House of Lords, requiring companies to weigh the potential benefit and harm of their proposed schemes.

A Railway historian wrote:

“A rumour that it was proposed to bring such a thing as a railroad within a dozen miles of a particular neighbourhood was enough to elicit adverse petitions to Parliament, and public subscriptions were opened to give effect to the opposition.”

One railway proponent of the time, George Godwin, an associate of the Institute of Architects, pleaded: “To retain our pre-eminent position, then as manufacturers for the world- a position which our improved machinery has principally enabled us to maintain so long…we would strongly and sincerely urge every individual of the society to lend his utmost aid in establishing and increasing the effectiveness of the railways; feeling assured that he would thereby assist, not merely to maintain the prosperity of the country, but greatly to increase it”

Despite all the hullabaloo, only a few cases brought the nation together in protest: most of the opposition was by nature local, consisting of persons who were not, in theory, opposed to the idea of rail transport, but who fought railway encroachments on their own territory.

The most effective opposition movements took place largely during the first half of the century; by the second half, railways had become a part of the landscape and the largest period of expansion was completed.


Lessons from the past

Imagine what a different place Britain would be today had that early opposition to the development of the railways been successful: industry would have suffered greatly, many of the technological innovations we now take for granted might not exist, and the tens of thousands of jobs created in building the railways – and the supply chain needed to support them – wouldn’t have materialised.

The same could be said for shale gas and other forms of energy extraction. And, in fact, nowhere is the comparison more stark than the recent decision of planning officers at Lancashire County Council in recommending the refusal of two shale gas planning applications on the grounds of noise and traffic. Now, as in the early days of rail, it’s the potential nuisance impacts that have come to the fore; concerns over health, safety and pollution have been considered, but dismissed as low risk and easily managed.

There are other similarities too.

When a problem was encountered during the development of the railways, scientists and engineers figured out clever ways of overcoming them. Hills, rivers, gorges and even mountains proved no great challenge, as we developed the structural engineering skills that we still rely on to this day. And locomotives that started out with coal-fired steam engines were phased out in favour of quieter and less polluting diesel alternatives and, eventually, electric trains too.

Innovation is also prevalent in onshore oil and gas development. Modern day engineers and technical specialists, employed by SMEs in a whole range of disciplines, take great care to minimise the environmental impacts and potential intrusion of energy extraction in the communities where it takes place.

Just like the railways, shale gas is a fantastic opportunity for Britain to create jobs, investment and prosperity. It could also contribute to reductions in carbon dioxide and other air pollutants associated with coal-fired electricity generation. More importantly, most of us rely on gas to heat our homes, and it is widely used in industry for heating too, but our North Sea reserves are being depleted and so we’re now very reliant on expensive imports.

We should follow the example of our Victorian ancestors and grab this opportunity with both hands.