We need to talk about fracking

At some point pretty soon, we're going to need to know where we stand on this.

Bear with me here. We’d all rather discuss the fifth moon discovered orbiting Pluto, or the plan to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes into Florida. Maybe even the brown algae that’s threatening the ecosystems of China’s lakes is more compelling. But at some point soon, we really have to pay attention to fracking.

In mid-July, at Preston Magistrates’ Court, three people were convicted of aggravated trespass and assault. The trio had occupied a rig that was test-drilling to see whether shale gas could be released from the rocks two kilometres beneath Hesketh Bank in Lancashire. The defence argued that their actions were justifiable in terms of the greater good. Sometimes, they argued, you have to break the law in order to prevent others from committing greater wrongs. The shale gas is to be liberated by a process called hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. The protesters say this will pose a grave threat to the planet because burning this gas releases vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

Cuadrilla, which owns the oil rig, has not broken any laws. Nonetheless, there is some discomfort about its plan to pump water into the ground to break up rocks that are holding shale gas reserves. The anti-fracking protesters say they want the British public to start discussing these reservations, rather than pretending that there are more important things to talk about.

So, let’s talk. The first concern is that fracking increases the chance of seismic activity. That is true, according to the Geological Society. But, it adds, there’s not really anything to worry about. Fracking won’t cause big earthquakes in the UK because our portion of the earth’s crust can’t store a lot of energy before it slips and releases it all in an understated, very British quake.

Next up is the contamination of groundwater by methane released in the process. In the US, this does seem to have happened. But, the Geological Society said, it doesn’t have to: there is no evidence that, properly done, and properly regulated, fracking will make local water undrinkable.

The third problem is water use. Fracking involves pumping water into the ground and then bringing it back up (and cleaning it). The amounts involved are about only 0.01 per cent of licensed annual water extraction for England and Wales. The cleaning is possible. So far, so good.

The fourth problem is that the point of all this – burning shale gas as part of the nation’s energy mix – will lost us a lot of carbon emissions. According to researchers at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, if we burn one fifth of the reserves identified under Lancashire, the resulting CO2 emissions would account for 15 per cent of the government’s greenhouse-gas emissions budget through to 2050. You can add to that the contention that allowing 3 per cent of the shale gas to leak away (not implausible, if regulation is not watertight) would make shale-gas use equivalent, in terms of its carbon impact, to the environmental catastrophe of burning coal.

Emission impossible

So, there are two decisions to make. First, do we trust the regulators to do a good job in minimising the environmental impact of fracking? Second, do we want to be part of the generation that decided not even to bother trying to meet reductions in carbon emissions?

The protesters had no expectation that they would stop Cuadrilla. They just hoped their action might attract our attention. The company expects government permission to extract shale gas from UK soil any day now: it is looking at an August or September kick-off for its operations. Is that OK with you? Don’t say no one asked.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

 

The Cuadrilla shale fracking facility in Preston, Lancashire. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.