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

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage