Why fracking is not the solution

There are clear conflicts of interest over the sources of the government’s advice on fracking. In 2012, Cameron was committed to renewable energy - what changed?

New Statesman
Protests against fracking continue in Surrey. Image: Getty

David Cameron wrote a disturbing article in the Telegraph on the 11 August in which he unreservedly endorsed hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, as a solution to the energy needs of Great Britain.

Fracking is a technique to extract shale gas from the earth by forcing water, laden with a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, into the rock under high pressure. This releases shale gas, as well as toxic gases such as methane, salts and metals. Fracking causes earthquakes, contamination of aquifers, leakage of toxic chemicals into the ground, air pollution, increased road traffic and significantly contributes to climate change. Each well drilled requires millions of litres of water, which will place an immense strain on already scarce resources.

If the Prime Minister had, as he claimed in April last year, given Britain ‘the greenest government ever,’ he would have written an entirely different article. The satirical version of his piece, by the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), which substitutes renewable energy data for Mr Cameron’s fracking statistics, shows us what he should have said.The UK should be committing to a conversion to renewable energy. Instead of shale gas, the UKYCC dryly suggests, the Prime Minister should be endorsing solar panels, wind turbines, tidal power and hydro - sources which do not threaten our communities, our safety, our air, water and environment as fracking does.

The Prime Minister has some important questions to answer. Why has he changed his policy, which in 2012 was still directed towards a coming-of-age for renewable energy in the UK? Who counselled Mr Cameron to abandon renewable energy for fracking?

There are obvious conflicts of interest in the sources of the government's advice.

The Conservative strategist Lynton Crosby’s links to the fracking industry have been well documented. But there are more sticky fingers than just Crosby’s in this pie. Lord Browne, former chief executive of BP and chairman of fracking company Cuadrilla - the very same company which is currently operating in Balcombe, West Sussex - is also a UK government adviser.

The endorsement of fracking in the UK has the fingerprints of corporate interest all over it - especially Lord Browne’s. The Royal Academy of Engineering’s final report on shale gas extraction which states that fracking ‘can be safely undertaken’ with low risk of seismic activity is often cited by the pro-fracking contingent.

It seems more than coincidental that the scientific society telling the government that fracking is safe - the Royal Academy of Engineering – had as its president, until 2011, the same Lord Browne, Chairman of Cuadrilla, which stands to make huge financial gains if fracking is widely adopted as government policy.

I notice that the government has hired the PR giant Bell Pottinger in an attempt to greenwashfracking, to persuade the British public to comeon board. Mr Cameron’s endorsement is starting to look like a corporate takeover. Collusion of this kind between government and corporations compromises the statein the performance of its duty: to protect its citizens and the environment.

Prime Minister – have you forgotten BP’s miserable safety record under Lord Browne’s leadership between 1995 and 2006? In his book "Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster," investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten states: Browne drove a spree of acquisitions while pushing BP into riskier drilling and ruthlessly cutting costs.

Prime Minister - it would only take one mistake by Cuadrilla and others to cause a fracking disaster.

How can Mr Cameron write that fracking is safe. International evidence shows there is no reason why the process should cause contamination of water supplies or other environmental damage’in the face of the mounting evidence to contrary? The UK Environment Agency impact assessment released on the 13 August is clear that fracking involves ‘Serious hazards, including the potential for air pollution and for contamination of surface and groundwater,’ with a “high risk” of pollution caused by the chemicals pumped into the ground, of contamination and loss of resources, injury, ill health or death, loss of or damage to a habitat.”

Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, concluded in a recent study that fracking and reliance on shale gas will exacerbate climate change for many decades. Whereas the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests investment in wind and solarcould reduce emissions of CO2 from the US power sector by up to 80 percent by 2050.

Prime Minister, I urge you to examine the ‘international evidence’ more closely.

Dr Anthony Ingraffea is a professor of engineering at Cornell University as well as the president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy. He has worked as a researcher onshale fracturing techniques as well as for Nasa. He is co-author of the Cornell University 2011 study that established the greenhouse gas footprint of fracking as being greater than that of any other fossil fuel including coal, and is one of the leading voices raisedagainst the use of intensive fracking in the US.

‘I was aghast,’ he said of the US’s adoption of fracking.‘It was as if [I'd] been working on something [my] whole life and somebody comes and turns it into Frankenstein.’

Has the Prime Minister seen the footage of methane-laden water catching fire as it pours from a kitchen tap?

The Prime Minister is not the first world leader to try and soft-pedal the dangers of fracking. Areportby the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was suppressed by the Obama administration during 2012 then leaked by whistleblowersto the Los Angeles Times on July 27 2013. It clearly states,"Methane is at significantly higher concentrations in the aquifers after gas drilling… and… apparently cause significant damage to the water quality”. Nor is the US the only country to experience serious repercussions from its commitment tofracking.Around 40 ‘seismic events’ were recorded in British Columbia, Canada, between 2009 and 2012 - the earthquakes were caused by fracking, according to the 2012 report by the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission. And a study published in Science journal in July found thateven earthquakes thousands of kilometres away can triggerquakes near wells.

Most of the ‘international evidence’ resembles cautionary tales. France, which has some of the largest reserves of shale gas in Europe, has banned the practice, and there is currently a moratorium in New York State. But Mr Cameron need look no further than Lancashire for proof of fracking-related earthquakes. Cuadrilla admitted in 2011 that their gas exploration had caused problems near Blackpool.

In his article, the Prime Minister promises communities money- £100,000 up front for those near drill sites, and  ‘one per cent of the revenue – perhaps as much as £10 million’ which he claims ‘will go straight back to residents.’

I am outraged when governments and corporations offer vapour money to communities in return for exploitation of their natural resources. The Prime Minister’s words sound ominously like those guarantees beingmade by multinational corporations in the developing world. Usually all that results is irreversible environmental destruction. Communities rarely benefit.

Prime Minister - we can’t put a price on the environment. The air, the water, the land – these are precious resources which we must conserve, if we are to leave a habitable world to future generations.

The Prime Minister also claims that ‘fracking has real potential to drive energy bills down… ’

There is just too little evidence to back this statement up.The Prime Minister’s claim of ‘1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas lying underneath Britain,’is unproven. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology finds it unreliable. Their report states - Estimates of UK shale gas potential are at an early stage of development… leading to uncertainty in resource estimates. There are no official reserve estimates, which are needed to forecast the commercial scale of shale gas extraction. In addition the nine-month long cross-party inquiry chaired by former energy minister Charles Hendry, the Carbon Connect report, finds that a UK shale price boom will have little to no bearing on energy prices in the UK and throws doubt on the capacity to extract the gas.John Vidal called 1,300 trillion cubic feet estimate ‘meaningless,’ in the Guardian, ‘until it is known how much is accessible, what the environmental cost could be to extract it and how long the supplies may last.’

UK energy prices depend on the global market and global suppliers. Predicting them is a lottery. It’s true that in the US gas prices are at an all-time low – but there’s no reason to believe the UK will follow suit - and the US bubble is already bursting. ‘The economic momentum of the shale-gas industry can be sustained for the long term only by decreasing production (ultimately causing prices to adjust—a process that may be under way…) or by increasing sales of its product,’writes Michael McElroy for Harvard Magazine.

Chancellor George Osborne’s reduced 30 per cent tax rate for shale gas producers (less than half the amount paid by the conventional oil and gas industry) will help companies like Cuadrilla make money. It will certainly not carry any benefit for consumers or fracking affected communities.

Fracking will however have extensive economic repercussions for communities other than energy prices – property prices near the drill sites will probably fall. Buildings and businesses will be harder to insure. The £100, 000 promised to communities situated near exploratory wells won’t cover these deficits – nor will the purely speculative ‘£10 million’.

The Prime Minister makes assurances in his article that: ‘Local people will not be cut out and ignored… Dialogue is important…’

Mr Cameron –are you not aware that the drilling in Balcombe is taking place against the will of the residents? When I spoke to villagers during my recent visits it was clear that most of them oppose it.

Kathy Dunne, of resident's campaign group No Fracking in Balcombe Society (No FIBS), conducted a survey in the village: 85% of those who answered were against fracking. We spoke to every household in the village," said Dunne, "and the overwhelming majority of people who live in Balcombe don't want fracking."

Yet Cuadrilla began drilling in Balcombe anyway. There was little sign of the ‘dialogue’ promised by the Prime Minister.

For the past eight weeks protesters havegathered at theBalcombe site, during which over 100 protesters have been arrested, including MP Caroline Lucas. The Balcombe protesters were ordered to leave the site by 9am on Tuesday 10 September – but many stayed. Today a High Court judge ruled that they have the right to remain, and that West Sussex County Council must pay court costs. This is good news, but the battle is far from over.

Balcombeis a litmus test of the British public’s attitude. Most want the countryside frack-free.

The risks of the Prime Minister’s frackingpolicy are high, the rewards uncertain at very best.In the words of Dr Anthony Ingraffea: My position is this. Where shale gas development has not yet occurred, ban it. Period.I am deeply concerned about the impact fracking will have on our environment, our water sources, air and way of life. In this mad ‘dash for gas’, in this quest for profit and so-called ‘cheap’ energy, is the UK government losing sight of the real objectives? We urgently need to reduce carbon emissions and decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Fracking will not achieve this. Only a sustained and serious commitment to renewable energy will turn us aside from climate disaster. As Einstein wrote in 1949, ‘We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.’ Prime Minister, time is running out.

George Monbiot’s response in the Guardian says it all. Extraction is an ideology, gendered and gendering, pursued independently of economic purpose. As Cameron says, without shale gas "we could lose ground in the tough global race". It doesn't matter whether the race is worth running. It doesn't matter that it's a race towards mutually assured destruction, through manmade climate change. The point is that it's tough and a race. And that's all a politician needs to feel like a man.

Prime Minister, you made a promise to the electorate. You swore to give the UK a green government, promised to “inspire and encourage positive action through a radical but realistic vision of green growth,” to lead a new political consensus to stop “short term political calculation” getting in the way of environmental protection. You have let us down miserably.

Prime Minister, it is not yet too late to rethink this position. I appeal to you to weigh the dangers of this enterprise, and ban fracking in the UK. If you persist in embracing this hazardous technology it will be a betrayal of present and future generations and of the environment.

 

Bianca Jagger is the chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. She tweets @BiancaJagger