Fracking: Britain’s missed opportunity

I’ve been on something of a fracking journey. When I first heard about the technique of recovering gas from shale rock by pumping a fluid mixture into a well, I became an immediate opponent. Last Thursday, Climate Change and Energy Secretary Ed Davey, lifted restrictions on the practice. Fracking has arrived in the UK. However, the debate preceding the announcement nuanced my views: hydraulic fracturing could play some role in Britain’s energy supplies, as long as we don’t become hooked.

A fracking installation

A fracking installation

My initial fear was that this was just another drug to satiate our fossil fuel addiction. In September 2011, Cuadrilla Resources estimated that the UK might be perched on top of 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. While only about 5% of this might viably extracted, the government is clearly excited. The reduced energy prices, investment opportunities and employment benefits a ‘shale gas revolution’ might bring about are dangerously tempting for those in power.

A glance across the Atlantic provides a thrilling precedent. The price of gas in the USA has fallen 85% since 2005. The current price of $3.50 per million British thermal units is still half that paid in continental Europe and the UK. With North Sea gas reserves disappearing and the British economy stagnating, shale gas can very easily be seen as a panacea.

Inevitably, environmentalists have hit back. Minor earthquakes are the headline grievance: in 2011, fracking was restricted pending government review (the limitations Ed Davey has lifted) after two near Blackpool. Next, the hydraulic fluid – a mixture of water, sand and certain chemicals – came under scrutiny. What gets pumped down, comes back up containing naturally occurring organic hydrocarbons and some radioactive material which has to be stored in covered surface pits. Water supplies can be contaminated and inadvertent underground fractures can allow methane to escape.

These concerns are not vapid ‘nimby-isms’. A report in the Economist in June describes how fracking has led to a disastrous reduction in biodiversity in Gladstone, Australia, a harbour within the Great Barrier Reef world heritage area.

What is most shocking, however, is the threat to renewable investment posed by the ‘dash for gas’. The Tyndall Centre of Climate Change Research reported, in January 2011, that a fully developed UK shale gas industry would account for a very large percentage of the country’s carbon emissions budget.

This is not an opportunity for green growth, it is an economic opportunity. I fully understand that Britain faces a turgid economic battle, and energy prices are one way in which this impacts the lives of everyday consumers, but we cannot compromise our future. If we are hooked on gas for the next half century, where does this leave our carbon reduction plan? Where does this leave our warming planet?

Ed Davey’s statement last week was delivered in measured fashion. He argued: “Shale gas could contribute significantly to our energy security, and reduce imports of gas as we move to a low-carbon economy. It could substitute for imports, which are increasing as North Sea gas is decreasing.” A traffic light system using seismic monitoring will ensure that earthquake-threatening drilling stops before it is too late.

Yet, behind this calm rhetoric, which puts the transition to low-carbon energy at the centre of the debate, the clamouring paws of George Osborne aren’t far away. In shale gas, the Chancellor sees a road to economic recovery. His Autumn statement fleshed out a firm commitment to gas with tax breaks for shale production, targeting 37GW of new gas-powered electricity capacity.

The Chancellor has committed Britain to the 'dash for gas'

The Chancellor has committed Britain to the ‘dash for gas’

We should not be scared of shale gas. Further exploration by Cuadrilla should be allowed under Davey’s new safety restrictions, especially as its environmental impact, particularly on the relatively small British scale, is uncertain.

However, we must not allow our basic urge for cheaper fuel to lead us to another fossil fuel addiction. If shale gas emerges as a viable option then we cannot get caught up in the euphoria and forget our long term direction of travel.

In a blog on the topic, the Guardian’s Damian Carrington calls shale gas “a risky gamble that we do not need to take”. Yet, it could offer a useful lubricant in the greening of the British economy. One major sticking point as we move towards renewable energy will be higher bills for consumers. If we were to add limited shale gas extraction into the energy mix then the low-carbon transition might tug a little less on the pockets of the British public.

Of course, this is not a new argument: it is how Ed Davey suggested shale gas might be used. However, his Chancellor and Prime Minister are set on chasing the fossil fuel dream. The latter two desperately need economic success to secure a Conservative victory in 2015.

Restrained exploitation of shale gas might have helped Britain to a low-carbon future. Tragically, its over-exploitation, fuelled by political ambitions and economic short-termism, will likely lead us up an environmental dead-end.

Photographs: geograph.org.uk and georgeosborne4tatton.com

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