Considering the latest emergency situation in the Middle East and the fact that UK gas production is both in decline and being replaced by imports from the aforementioned region, this month’s feverish opposition to gas fracking is perplexing to say the least. Here is a development that in the USA has created economic growth, evened out the national balance of payments (fewer imports), generated jobs, indirectly improved national security, lowered the price of gas and significantly reduced CO2 emissions. What’s not to like…?
Despite being seen as a modern phenomenon, Hydraulic Fracturing (= fracking) was actually developed in the 1940’s, although it is only in the last 10 years, that process developments have led to the recent explosion (ha-ha) in production. The process itself involves blasting water, sand and chemicals in a lateral direction, through rock strata to release methane trapped within (rather than conventional gas, where the product is located below the rock formations). Some of the claims made against fracking are entirely bogus (“flammable water taps”) and others are exaggerated. For example, the well publicised 2011 “earthquake” in Blackpool was akin to a large lorry driving up the High St and was one of 20 other similar tremors in the UK in the same year, none of which were related to fracking. Furthermore, in the USA, there have been no earthquakes attributable to fracking in the 70 years since its development as a drilling technique.
There are however genuine concerns around ground-water contamination and the enormous consumption of water involved in the fracking process. In parts of Texas, gas fracking uses up to 25% of the region’s water supply – this in an area suffering from one of the most intensive droughts in US history and where the taps in some communities have quite literally run dry. What makes this situation worse is that so little of the used water is recycled (most of it going straight to waste disposal) even though the likes of Shell and Chevron have voluntarily introduced schemes, whereby 90% of their fracked water is recycled. However, the fact that water recycling is not common (even though it is possible), is not proof of a flawed engineering process, rather it is evidence of a lack of regulation in a nascent industry. One even feels that the UK can take the lead here and not just because our soggy climate is very different to sun-baked Texas. With our long and successful history of regulated oil exploration in the North Sea, the British Government is in a perfect position to regulate fracking so that ground-water contamination, water wastage and methane escapes – all of which can occur during any exploration technique (including coal mining) – are minimised to tolerable levels.
Such arguments hold little sway with many fracking protesters though, because in truth, they are simply against any type of fossil fuel exploration – preferring instead to pin their dreams on the holy trinity of wind, sun and sea to meet the world’s energy needs. This view is as naïve as it is short-sighted, for there is no renewable silver bullet to take us to a carbon free world. Let us not forget that 30% of Europe’s electricity (35% in the UK) comes from (imported) coal but that burning gas for electricity emits 50% less CO2 than burning coal. Indeed whilst Europe has lectured the world on climate change, our CO2 emissions have risen, whereas the USA has reduced its carbon output by circa 450m tonnes since 2008, largely as a result of coal-fired power stations being replaced by cleaner burning shale gas plants. In China, where 80% of electricity is coal powered and a new coal fired power station is taken into operation every 10 days, shale gas could revolutionise the energy landscape in what is fast becoming the globe’s new super polluter. In short, the burning of shale gas offers unrivalled efficiency when compared to present-day power generation and even a 5% switch from coal to gas (which is feasible here and now) will have an infinitely greater impact on reducing global carbon emissions than any increases in renewable energy that are even remotely possible in the next 10 years.
So whilst CO2 remains a global issue, fracking in the UK seems to sit firmly in the camp of localised, NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard). The fact that Balcombe (the location of the recent Fracking protests) is a wealthy Middle Class town in the South-East of England generates the kind of non-stop media coverage that would never occur if exploration was confined to the “desolate“ moors of the North. Indeed, the protestors in Balcombe make an unholy alliance between sandal-wearing hippy types and wealthy NIMBY’s who drive 4×4’s. The latter worry about climate change but still insist on owning 2 cars and flying abroad twice a year for their holidays. They are inflamed when they read about the UK’s impending energy crisis, but will support no moves to address the problem if it affects house prices and / or spoils the view. In fact the combined forces of the Balcombe Army neatly sum up the curious mix that is today’s Green Movement. On the one hand you have a set of (largely noble) ideologues who will tolerate no interim steps on the way to the promised land of carbon-free living and on the other, we have the “Hedonistic Idealists” who will make no substantial changes to their lifestyle, but hope that someone else or somewhere else will deal with the problem on their behalf.