Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has come to the UK !
In quite a big way if Cuadrilla Resources, performing exploratory drilling work around Blackpool, are to be believed. They say they have discovered reserves amounting to 2 trillion tons and have sent a shimmer of excitement through the media predicting Blackpool will become Dallas–on sea and the UK will benefit from a latter-day equivalent to North Sea Oil.
What is fracking, or hydraulic fracturing ? It’s a technique that’s evolved from cumulative efforts to get the highest yield out of gas wells. It has only recently reached full development and found widespread application to extract gas from relatively non-porous bedrock like shale, which previously could not be exploited. It involves sending down millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the rock. The sand or other ‘proppant’ keeps the fractures open to allow the gas to escape back up the well. Typically it involves drilling down and then outwards horizontally to reach the maximum amount of gas.
Now this new technique of hydraulic fracturing has come about of course because the most easily exploitable fossil fuels are running out and the industry is having to work harder to get at them or find new sources (tar sands, deep sea drilling, arctic sea drilling etc…etc….) …with a corresponding increase in cost and/or risks…. In the case of fracking each well produces far less than an average conventional well so far more wells are required, often distributed in a regular grid-type pattern over the landscape, while the process involved is complex and resource intensive (certainly in terms of the demand for water…). The result is a massive multiplication of the risk factors.
Not so surprising, then, that the record in the USA, where fracking has already taken off in a big way is a catalogue of environmental horror stories. Nothing I can write here can really describe it – you just have to see (if you haven’t already) Josh Fox’s Oscar nominated film ‘Gasland’. Contamination of aquifers, toxic waste water spills, air pollution, well blow outs, exploding basements and most famously of all tap water so contaminated with methane that you can set light to it. A lot of the problems are associated with the nasty chemicals that go down with the gallons of water under pressure to fracture the rock – and then come up again (with other dangerous substances from the deep - including even radioactive – that may have been picked up on the way) to leak into aquifers, get spilt, evaporate into toxic clouds etc…etc…
Now it didn’t help that in the land of cowboys the biggest cowboy (I mean in the perjorative sense – apologies to all those who herd cattle from horseback) of all - Dick Cheney – had secured for fracking exemption from the Clean Water Act . One might think that something like fracking was precisely the kind of thing this Act was designed to regulate and make safe(r) ! Here in the land of smug hypocrisy the smugness with which politicians have asserted the superiority of our ‘regulatory system’ is quite stomach-turning – and if John Vidal’s research is anything to go by completely unjustified. Not only that but we are of course a small densely populated island - how much bigger the impacts (the sheer disruption of, for example, millions of tanker journeys, let alone the likely pollution incidents) on our fragile environments than on the relatively wide open spaces of the US.
In any case the unenviable reputation that fracking has earnt in the USA is largely responsible for its temporary or permanent banning in places like France, several USA states, South Africa, Quebec. New South Wales in Australia and the Swiss province of Freibourg. Its also responsible – in part at least - for the understandable concerns of people to whom it is already becoming apparent that their local area might be likely to be affected here in the UK. Their concerns, together with those of the Coop, the Tyndall Centre, the Green Party and others have combined to produce a demand in the UK (paralleled by that in other countries) for a moratorium on fracking at least until the likely adverse environmental impacts can be fully researched and evaluated. There is now an EDM (Early Day Motion 2159) calling for a moratorium. Write to your MP and ask him or her to sign it now !
But there is another adverse impact of fracking we have not yet mentioned – and given that we are the Campaign against Climate Change you might expect that we would. Natural gas is a fossil fuel and of course burning it produces the heat trapping, climate destabilising gas, Carbon Dioxide. Shale gas, extracted by fracking, is a new source of fossil fuel – a so called ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel. Now it is a matter of simple mathematics that if we burn all the conventional fossil fuels on the planet we guarantee the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate with all that implies in terms of death and misery on an unimaginable scale. If we burn the ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels as well – like tar sands, methane hydrates possibly and of course…. shale gas) then we will be effectively cooking the planet twice over. It is argued that because natural gas has a smaller carbon footprint than other fossil fuels like coal then it is ‘green’ and can be used as a ‘bridging fuel’ until we transition completely to renewable forms of energy. One problem here is that recent studies have thrown doubt on whether natural gas – especially that derived from fracking – really does produce less greenhouse gases than coal. These studies have focused on the ‘fugitive’ methane accidentally leaked in the process – methane being a highly potent greenhouse gas. Now whatever the truth here our government is not waiting until the question is fully researched before forging ahead.
The other point is that the ‘transition fuel’ logic might work in a situation where we had a reliable cap on total greenhouse gas emissions and we could be certain that shale gas was actually replacing another, worse, fossil fuel. But there is no such guarantee, no reliable cap especially at the global level and the overwhelming probability, given the economic forces at work that shale gas will simply be burnt in addition to other fossil fuels – not instead of. That means that however big or small its carbon footprint its still a (bigger or smaller) bad thing. It will add to the total amount of fossil fuel we can burn and heat trapping gases we can send into the atmosphere. There is also an argument that if we use (at a global level) all available (conventional and) unconventional fossil fuels in the most efficient, economic (in the short term) way possible we will also speed up the rate at which we spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere - the efficiency with which we pollute the atmosphere, in effect. It is certainly the case that if we keep on exploiting every last drop of every new ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel that we can find we will endlessly defer what we desperately need to do as fast (or faster!) than humanly possible – namely build a zero carbon economy and drastically reduce emissions (and, harder, ultimately parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere to below 350).
This argument is based on what we know already. Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre has convincingly argued that ““From a climate-change perspective this stuff simply has to stay in the ground.” Kevin Anderson has also argued that if we are to reach our statutory targets (themselves arguably inadequate) we should be reducing emissions much faster than we are ( he has suggested 10 % a year, a target adopted by our campaign for some time now) It makes sense that if we are making the kind of drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and therefore the amount of fossil fuel that we burn then we should we should also be reducing the number of types of fossil fuel that we are burning – or at least not be increasing them. The fact is that if the government was really anywhere near on track in terms of doing what it really needs to be doing in terms of reducing emissions the issue of developing another source of fossil fuel like shale gas just simply would not arise. We need to demand an end to all development of new or ‘unconventional’ fossil fuels’ It is not illogical, or inconsistent, to demand the banning of this category of fossil fuels and not others we are already using like coal because it is clearly a lot more feasible to stop the use of something new than it is to kick away - entirely and all at once - an existing prop of our current energy system. As climate campaigners we can and should draw a line in the sand against all new, ‘unconventional’, fossil fuels – as one way of effectively throttling down our use of fossil fuels when so many economic pressures, and the lack of clear-thinking resolution from the government are working against that.
Because this argument is based on what we know already the logic here demands not a moratorium – while we find out more – but a permanent ban, right now. Politically this may not seem pragmatic but there is nothing inconsistent with joining together with a wider constituency to demand a moratorium whilst also insisting, that, in principle, we favour a permanent ban. The fact is that so much of what we need to do to prevent the catastrophic destabilisation of global climate looks at the moment politically unfeasible: zero carbon by 2030 and 10 % cuts a year, are, frankly, right now political pie in the sky - but no less necessary to really get to grips with climate change, for all that. In our campaign we have taken the view that we should say, in effect, to hell with the politics, lets tell it like it is. Somebody has to or we have no chance. If we are demanding the (currently) politically unfeasible in terms of emission cuts and a of the scale and speed of our investment in a low carbon economy then it is entirely consistent that we should be demanding a ban on the development of unconventional fossil fuels, whether or not its politically pragmatic – simply because its another part of what we need to do in any realistic, joined-up strategy to achieve the scale of response that we need to confront the climate emergency..
Its important to be demanding a ban because its also a way of stating that, actually, however ghastly the immediate environmental impacts of shale gas, the climate issue is ultimately far more important. Important, of course, because it concerns, in the end, the survival of life, itself, on earth, not to mention the fate of billions of people.. Therefore even if the more immediate impacts of fracking are more tangible and persuasive the climate part of the argument against it is ultimately the most important – and as a climate campaign its our job to say that, however hard it might be. So we should be sticking with the logic of the climate argument and demanding a permanent ban.
The argument for a ban applies most cogently in the UK. This has to do with the fact that as a developed country we need to reduce our emissions more rapidly than other countries, and be more stringent in the measures we take to do that. But it also has to do with the precise situation of the UK right now and how it is poised in terms of moving towards a lower carbon economy. As Guy Shrubsole has pointed out to me the UK has already had a “dash for gas” – in the nineties - in which we went a long way in terms of replacing coal as a fuel source with natural gas. That was largely natural gas from the North Sea which is now running out but replacing it with shale gas (or imported gas, for that matter) will not represent any kind of progress in the drive to reduce emissions. In order to move forward we need to be pressing ahead with demand reduction, energy efficiency measures and expanding our renewable sources of energy. Developing a new source of fossil fuel right now is likely to be a dangerous diversion from that – it may attract away investment from truly renewable energy; if it reduces gas prices it may undermine the economic viability of renewables and it may tempt the government as a cheap easy answer to energy security concerns, overwhelming the concerns it should have about making faster progress towards a low carbon economy.
But how big will the shale gas “bonanza” really be ? Here we come back to Cuadrilla’s recent two trillion ton claim. Caution is advised here. First one of the constituent companies of Cuadrilla – the Australian company AJ Lucas has been in some financial trouble and was only recently bailed out. There exists here a strong imperative for Cuadrilla to come our with very strong positive results to reassure shareholders and investors. Second some have voiced doubts whether Cuadrilla has really carried out enough exploration to justify its quite remarkable results. It would not be the first time that the claims of a company like this have proved to be more about PR than substance. Apart from its investors the other people Cuadrilla might want to impress are the members of Lancashire County Council who it needs to grant it planning permission. Here its promise of thousands of well paid jobs is relevant – effectively a huge bribe to the Council and to the local community.
Whatever substance such a promise of jobs may or may not have, for those of us seeking to halt the destructive onward march of fracking into the UK and move the UK further down the path to a low carbon economy its scary. We need investment and development on a massive scale but that needs to be in renewable energy, in an extensive insulation program, in a low carbon transport system and all the other changes we need to decarbonise our economy. The positive aspect to this is that it will bring jobs and could indeed be a way of revitalising our ailing economy. But the prospect (true or false) of a shale gas ‘job revolution’ could take the energy out of the campaign for green, or ‘climate’ jobs and take us down a path towards more carbon emissions not less.
Cuadrilla’s claims don’t have to be true – they just have to do the trick to get its foot in the door. Meanwhile it and several other companies are already prospecting for gas in South Wales, the Mendips, Kent, Sussex, Scotland…….. Fracking, or at least applications to frack seem to be breaking out all over like a bad disease It looks like this could be something big, whether Cuadrilla’s claims about what it has found around Blackpool are true or just exaggerated hype This reinforces the threat that fracking poses to the climate cause. If we as climate campaigners allow the massive expansion of a conspicuously invasive fossil fuel industry, something that could result in the effective industrialisation of large swathes of the countryside, then we and our cause will have suffered – psychologically - a massive blow. The triumph of the fossil fuel industry and the emblems of our failure, as it were, will be there all over the place, for all to see
This is added to the way that the (real or imaginary) “shale gas jobs revolution” threatens to rival and undermine our own projected “climate jobs revolution”. And if there really are jobs that result from the large scale expansion of a shale gas industry in the UK then that, too, has unnerving implications. It could represent the growth of a body of people with a perceived interest in the perpetuation of this fossil fuel industry and the fossil fuel economy in general. The oil and gas companies might get their claws into local communities as they extend their pervasive influence in all the ways that huge amounts of money can assure and ultimately tighten their stranglehold on the political decision making process at every level of government …..the conversion of the UK into a ‘petro-state’…a Texas or Alberta ……
Now that’s probably taking the horror-story prospects too far (lets hope so!) and it remains a very real question – certainly in my head – just how big the fracking thing will turn out to be. But it looks like a real threat we cannot afford to ignore –especially before we know just how big and how widespread within the UK the actual fracking will turn out to be. Along with the threat, the risks, there come potential opportunities – an on-the-ground campaign against a concrete and immediate target, an ‘invasion’ to resist and in doing so forge powerful links with local communities : all this might have the power to reinvigorate an arguably flagging climate change movement. But it will help to make the most of that opportunity if we have a coherent joined up message - against fracking and against all new, “unconventional”, fossil fuels as an integral part of a radical emissions reduction policy in line with what the science and not the politics demands.
One thing anyway is clear. Obscene words beginning with ‘f ‘and ending in ‘k’ used to have four letters. Now they have five.