David Cameron has got a fight on his hands. It is no secret that he avidly supports fracking in the UK and has even said he will risk party politics to make sure fracking happens. The most recent push saw Cameron’s government renege on agreements for environmental protections, enforced by Labour earlier this year, by allowing fracking to take place under several National Parks.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of recovering shale gas, which was previously stranded underground. The usual process involves drilling vertically about a mile below ground before gradually drilling horizontally for several thousand feet more. The well is then pumped with a “fracking fluid” made up of a mix of sand, water and chemicals, at a high enough pressure to fracture the surrounding rock and release the gas, which moves to the surface.
A key argument for fracking is that it will drive gas prices down. However, the evidence to back up this claim is sketchy. Even the chairman of Caudrilla, the UK’s leading shale gas company, believes there will not be a reduction in prices. Cameron’s assumptions stem from the experience in the US where prices have come down. But this is an isolated market, unlike the UK which is strongly linked to the European gas market. An increase in gas production in the UK is likely to make little difference to the overall European price.
Argument number two is that fracking will create jobs in Britain. Some studies have the number of jobs that could be created by fracking as high as 150,000, but in reality we just don’t know and probably won’t know for at least another decade. It is inevitable that a new fracking industry would create thousands of jobs and provide millions of pounds in revenues but whether this will have a net benefit on the economy is uncertain.
The counter argument is that the economy would receive more of a boost if instead, investment went into the renewable energy market. After all, according to the think tank Cambridge Econometrics, the UK would be £20 billion a year better off by 2030 if we invested in offshore wind compared to gas-fired generation.
Now we come to a favourite topic among anti-fracking protesters – the local environmental impacts. Cameron has stated that “Nothing is going to happen in this country unless it is environmentally safe”. But there is mixed evidence concerning the potential impacts of fracking.
The big issue that people like to talk about in relation to fracking is earthquakes. A report commissioned by Cuadrilla found that it is highly probable that fracking was the cause of tremors felt in Blackpool. But this is an insignificant concern when compared to other environmental issues with the magnitude of these quakes being likened to a lorry passing by.
A more pressing, lesser discussed concern is whether fracking causes water contamination. Several high profile cases of contaminated drinking water have been reported in the US after fracking took off there. The contaminant was methane which, although not toxic, is very flammable. The news was soon showing pictures of people in the areas affected setting fire to their tap water.
However, a recent study published in The Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences has shown that these instances were not actually linked to the fracking itself but were due to the state of the wells themselves- something that can be controlled with regulation.
There’s a similar story for concerns over the risk of surface leaks of toxic chemicals and radiation. There are strict guidelines that mean that these chemicals should be contained, and radiation has only been found in very low doses that are unlikely to cause problems to human health.
But why should we trust that regulation will protect us when Cameron is pushing fracking forward so quickly. Scotland has put a moratorium on fracking until the environmental issues are clearer. It is likely that it will be two years until we have enough geological information to really ensure that sufficient regulation is in place.
However, there are still two massive elephants in the room: climate change and energy security. The UK is facing an energy supply crunch with a third of coal power stations coming off-line in 2016 and most nuclear plants closing by 2023. However, it is thought that it will be ten years before any meaningful amount of shale gas is produced. On the other hand we will need a back-up supply of energy going into the future as renewables cannot be 100% relied on.
Gas is a cleaner solution than coal and creating our own resources is better than relying on Russia for supplies, but this resource will eventually run out as well. There are alternatives, such as nuclear power, which is free of carbon emissions. The worry is with all the attention fracking is receiving, low carbon alternatives are being left behind.
So why is David Cameron so intent on allowing fracking? Even his own government doesn’t fully support him. More than 220 Tory and Lib Dem MPs face fracking in their constituencies – although conveniently for Cameron fracking will not be taking place in his constituency of Witney, Oxfordshire – and cross-party backbenchers are now calling for a two year moratorium on fracking in the UK. Labour MPs have accused Cameron of a cover-up relating to 63 redactions from the document Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts, before publication under the freedom of information act. He is also struggling to convince the public, with 56% of people against fracking according to a recent YouGov poll.
The answer should be more evident when the people behind Cameron’s government are revealed. It is no secret that there are conflicts of interest between policy makers and financial linkers to fracking within the Tory party. Lord Browne, the chairman of Cuadrilla is also the Government Lead Non-Executive. Baroness Hogg sits on the board of BG group, which has significant shale gas assets in the US, and is also a senior director in HM Treasury and a crossbencher in the House of Lords. A former non-executive for the Transport department was also Chief of Centrica, which has recently brought a 25per-cent stake in one of Cuadrilla’s shale gas prospects – the list goes on and on.
There is too much risk associated with fracking to allow politics to override scientific reasoning, and so for now it’s a polite frack off to David Cameron and his plans. This may not always be the case, but we have to be sure when such a decision will have lasting consequences for the UK’s energy supply and potential negative impacts on its population.
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