A new Infrastructure and Competitiveness Bill, to be announced to Parliament in the Queen's Speech on Wednesday, will change the UK's trespass law to allow shale gas exploration firms to drill beneath private property without needing the owners' permission.
This move will greatly advance fracking in the UK, where there are large shale gas reserves. It will bring major economic benefits, not to mention increased energy security, at a time when the country's North Sea oil production is tapering off. But there are issues about it, which need to be addressed.
People feel strongly about their property rights, and do not like the idea that people can 'mine' underneath it, even if it is a mile or more underneath it. Others are not over-bothered, but maintain that if people are going to drill under their property, they should be compensated. And some people are concerned about what might go wrong, in terms of the geological stability of their land or the pollution of local water supplies. While research suggests that these latter concerns are almost entirely unfounded, drilling under people's property remains something of concern for them, for a variety of reasons.
The government has tried to address the issue by saying that prospecting firms must make 'community payments' by way of compensation, though critics have complained that the amounts being mooted are rather small. But a more important question is whether such collective payments really meet the public concerns at all. If they simply go into the coffers of local governments, to be spent by local politicians on whatever pet social-engineering scheme they favour, property owners will not regard that as any compensation at all.
If public disquiet is not to hamper the UK's fracking initiatives, compensation should do directly to those whose property is affected. And it must be large enough to convince the majority of them to accept the process. Sending a cheque directly to every home in a village is not such an onerous task. But it is the one thing that would make people accept – and even welcome – fracking under their property, the only practical measure that shows at least some respect for their property rights.