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 government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity