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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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