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Gas fracking: the next threat to the planet

Unconventional gas extraction should not be part of our energy future.

Unconventional gas extraction should not be part of our energy future.

A weekend of news dominated by a volatile global financial system and erupting Tottenham riots did not stop two individuals with some banners, a good head for heights and an important point to make from hitting the headlines.

Early on Saturday morning, environmental justice protesters climbed over 150 metres up Blackpool Tower to drop banners reading "Fracking is coming to the UK -- We can stop it".

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a way of extracting otherwise inaccessible shale gas. A toxic mixture of chemicals, including known carcinogens, is combined with sand and millions of gallons of water before being blasted at very high pressure into rock in order to pulverise it and release the gas. Amongst other things, fracking fluid leaches radioactive elements and chemicals such as arsenic out of the rock.

You would be right in assuming, therefore, that fracking fluid disposal requires incredible care. However, numerous spills in the US have already been reported and France has banned the unconventional gas extraction practice, despite reportedly harbouring some of the most potentially productive natural gas fields in the world. As if toxic leaks weren't enough, geologists have found a correlation between earthquakes and fracking.

If the "science bit" left the mind boggling, this rather entertaining video featuring the fracking song My Water's On Fire Tonight might help you get to grips with what the frack is going on:

The banner drop this weekend launched the Frack Off campaign, with Blackpool Tower only a few kilometres away from the first UK fracking test well. Despite their arrest upon descent, both protesters were in no doubt over the necessity of the actions they took to highlight the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

One of the climbers, Nathan Roberts, said:

There are so many things wrong with this unconventional method of gas extraction that it's hard to know where to start. It has been linked with poisoned water supplies, earthquakes, leaking gas and even radioactive contamination - and that's before you even get to the effect it will have on the climate. It's unbelievable that they think they can get away with it. We can't let this happen.

The government has made it clear that gas is an energy source it wishes to encourage. Last month, the government's latest energy white paper, Electricity Market Reform (EMR), was widely criticised by both environmental campaigners and those concerned about fuel poverty after the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, made it clear that gas is going to play a key role in the government's ongoing energy strategy: "we are sending a clear signal that we do want new gas", said Huhne on the day the EMR was released.

Earlier this year, it was reported that results of preliminary attempts to extract UK shale gas using fracking methods by US private equity-backed firm Cuadrilla Resources would be kept under wraps over the next four years. The government granted the company that time in order to investigate potential gas sites and protect Cuadrilla's "commercial opportunity".

Kevin Anderson insists a much more in depth assessment of the health and environmental consequences of fracking is necessary before any proposed plans are rolled out. In his report, the professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University's Tyndall Centre makes it clear that beyond any direct impacts, investment in fracking would have serious implications for the UK's energy future more widely:

In an energy hungry world any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas, there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

Sami Jones, the second Blackpool Tower climber, reiterated how important it is that sustainable energy investment is prioritised in order to ensure reliable and ecologically viable energy in the longer-term:

We hear a lot about energy shortages. We need to be investing in researching sustainable energy sources rather than finding tiny pockets of non-renewable gas and destroying our planet in order to get to them.The UK fracking industry is in its infancy. We must act now if we are to stop it in its tracks. It's bad for Lancashire, it's bad for the UK and it's bad for the planet.


Tess Riley is a freelance journalist and social justice campaigner. She also works, part time, for Streetbank, and can be found on Twitter at @tess_riley

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.