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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

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.