Greater Manchester will effectively ban fracking as part of its effort to become carbon neutral by 2038, in a setback for the controversial industry.
The region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, said the combined authority would put planning measures in place that create “a presumption” against fracking for shale gas.
“It’s about embracing the future, not the past. Cities like Greater Manchester need to join the group of leading cities on the world stage that are driving fast towards carbon neutrality,” Burnham told the Guardian.
“That is a big challenge and it must be embraced wholeheartedly and it means a full commitment to renewable energy and not half measures and not clinging on to processes that hark back to a past.”
London is finalising a similar scheme and Manchester’s announcement, which comes into force on Monday, comes amid a wave of discontent among local councils – including Tory controlled authorities – which experts warn could kill off the government’s plans.
Burnham said council leaders had looked at what happened in nearby Lancashire, where fracking started in October at Preston New Road near Blackpool against the will of the local authority following a government intervention.
The energy firm Cuadrilla was forced to pause operations three times in the run-up to Christmas after drilling caused small earthquakes that breached legal limits.
“For the legal limits to be breached so regularly is a worry, isn’t it?” Burnham said. “It’s hard to know what damage is being done and the effect that is having on groundwater and all of those other issues that emerge.
“It’s even more worrying in Greater Manchester, which is a much more urban place, where there is more contaminated land, more mineshafts. This is an industry which hasn’t proven its case. In fact the opposite.”
In London mayor Sadiq Khan, who last month declared a “climate emergency”, has said that any fracking proposals that reach his desk will be thrown out. And his draft London Plan, which will be ratified later this year, has introduced an effective ban on fracking across the capital.
Several other authorities – including Leeds, Wakefield, Hull and York – have expressed their opposition to fracking and experts believe the stance taken by Manchester and London will embolden other local authorities.
Norway, one of the world’s major oil- and gas-producing nations, now generates 98% of its electricity from renewable sources and has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. Cities such as Berlin, Boston, Copenhagen, London and New York have joined the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance (CNCA), pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner.
Greater Manchester plans to bring forward its target for becoming a zero-carbon region by 12 years, to 2038. Manchester city council, one of its 10 local authorities, has already agreed to the new goal after accepting advice from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research at the University of Manchester.
Burnham accepted that Greater Manchester does not have the power to implement a ban on fracking. “That’s a reflection of government policy and not our policy. We would if we could,” he said. “We are doing what we can within the legal structures that we have got at our disposal.”
The new policy will be announced on Monday as part of the Greater Manchester spatial framework, which sets out a strategic plan for the city region until 2037. Local leaders have agreed to include concerns about the impact of the exploitation of new sources of hydrocarbons. They believe that the government’s support of fracking means there is less of an imperative to invest in new zero-carbon technologies, slowing the speed at which these become financially viable and/or technically feasible.
The move echoes similar policies already pursued by the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales. In September the petrochemical company Ineos lost a legal challenge against the Scottish government’s position on fracking. Scotland’s highest court ruled that politicians had not exceeded their powers by imposing a moratorium on fracking for oil and gas.
Burnham said he was hopeful that energy companies would respect Greater Manchester’s wishes and not apply to frack in the region. “There has never been a legal case involving a spatial framework of this kind. We would be empowering our own communities to take on a government policy, which at times seems to impose its will on local communities,” he said.
Around 2.6 million people live in Greater Manchester, large parts of which are “shale prospective areas” identified by the British Geological Survey and the Oil and Gas Authority. Energy firms have been granted licences to pursue oil and gas exploration in the west and north of the region, and the energy firm iGas drilled a combined coal bed methane and shale gas exploration well in Barton Moss in Salford in 2013-14.
Energy industry analysts have begun to question the economic feasibility of fracking in the UK. Since 2013, gas prices have fallen sharply and there is no shortage of supply in Europe or around the world. German import prices – the standard European benchmark – are half their 2013 level.
It is also not yet proven that the substantial shale resources present under the north of England and elsewhere in the UK can be recovered at a commercially viable volume as in the US.