F’Frack’s Sake!

December 4, 2012

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The stakes are growing ever higher. With temperatures rising and the effects of climate change being felt in various, and often unanticipated, forms across the world, a drumbeat of opposition to carbon intensive energy production is growing. Yet at the same time, with conventional oil resources at a seeming plateau, governments and corporations worldwide are increasingly desperate for cheap fossil fuel sources to produce electricity and support current levels of consumption.

This weekend, the tension between environmental (and, let’s be frank, existential) concerns regarding climate change and the economic imperatives of capitalism were crystallised by the Campaign Against Climate Change. Around 500 protesters marched through London, dramatising the possible consequences of government plans to unleash a wave of “fracking” projects across the country. After laying a symbolic ‘pipeline’ across Grosvenor Square, a reference to the contested Keystone XL pipeline from the Canadian tar sands to US markets, protesters headed to Parliament Square, where they erected a model fracking rig. It obviouslt struck a chord. Protests with ten times as many participants often fail to attract favourable coverage or even interest from the BBC, but its website carried a full report.

For those who are unaware, “fracking” is a method of producing natural gas which involves pumping a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into layers of rock (the shale), fracturing the solid material and releasing valuable gas. As its prevalence has grown in the United States, campaigners have charged fracking operations with tainting drinking water and risking the health of residents in gas-rich regions. Fracking has been implicated in earthquakes around very limited operations near Blackpool, while there is an ongoing debate about the level of greenhouse gas emissions that the process creates. British MPs and American congresspeople have reported that the health risks from fracking are overplayed, but most also stress that the evidence is not yet in to make a full judgement. Most agree that burning the world’s shale resources would be a climate catastrophe, however.

Despite the uncertainty, George Osbourne will choose this week to announce large subsidies for the UK’s fracking industry. Spurred by some geological estimates, Osbourne is apparently betting on shale gas to keep the lights on and reduce carbon emissions, while the public can be mollified by public relations strategies.

But he is wrong. As Greenpeace director John Sauven puts it, “George Osborne doesn’t get the energy challenges this country faces. If he offers tax breaks and handouts to fracking he’ll be putting his chips on an industry that is all hype and no delivery.”

Osbourne seems to believe that Britain can become a new fracking frontier akin to the Barnet Shale or Marcellus Shale in the United States. But hype regarding European shale reserves has proved misplaced in the recent past. Poland, for example, which once boasted of untapped reserves of 5,300 billion cubic metres of shale gas, now admits that the actual figure is near to 500,000 bcm, or around one tenth of the previous estimate. There is enormous uncertainty about all of the figures surrounding shale gas, so any policy which foregrounds it as a key energy source is simply a hunch.

Moreover, shale gas reserves in the UK are qualitatively different from those in the US, as far as we know. American shales tend to be nearer the surface and easy to exploit. In Europe, they are often deeper, smaller, and contaminated by clay, which needs to be removed, raising costs. American has also been investigating its shale resources for decades, helped by massive public investment and subsidies. In the UK, there is very little reliable information and the industry is a mere babe.  [See a good report from Chatham House by Paul Stevens for more information]

These are serious problems, but if profit is available and the government so wishes, it can provide the support for firms to capitalise, which is precisely what is seems to be intent upon doing. Given the geological conditions in the UK, and the environmental implications, as well as huge public concerns over fracking, this is either a very bold, single-minded decision, or a hopelessly irrational one – or both.

But the most depressing aspect of this is not the cynical pandering to profit on display. It is that hydraulic fracturing is such a reactionary technology – a last gasp attempt to maintain the fossil fuel era when alternatives are within our grasp. There is a real danger that embracing natural gas produced by fracking will set back renewable energy production for decades. It may be that the government is making a realistic economic decision, ensuring relatively lower energy prices in the short term, while damning the environment, economy and society in the long term.

It is exactly this kind of thinking that we need to fracture at high pressure, which is why protests like this weekend are so welcome, and the government’s energy subsidies are so chilling.

For more information see the website of the campaigning group Frack Off! and the Campaign Against Climate Change

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