Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The problem with fracking is trust

Let me start my saying I quite like Greg Barker. From what I can tell, he and Ed Davey are doing a good job at DECC in the face of a hostile government. I also like Lord Deben. He is something of climate hero on twitter. But I'm afraid I can't follow them in their enthusiasm for fracking in the UK.

There are several reasons why I oppose large-scale fracking, which I'll go in to briefly, but the most important is that I simply do not trust our institutions to be able to get it right. 

For example, Lord Deben says that fracking is okay so long as we have a robust carbon budget which will ensure overall emissions are reduced. Well with people like George Osborne and Boris Johnson waiting in the wings of the Tory party, and with an eye on what has happened in Canada and Australia, I fear for the future of these budgets. I hope they will survive, but I would not bet the climate on it. Without those targets, which can be removed with a couple of votes, fracking will simply lead to more fossil fuels, and no cap. In fact its worse than that, because fracking will increase the incentive to abandon these budgets. It's like putting a pile of chocolate next to a dieter and saying its okay, so long as they control their calorie intake. 

This brings me to a second problem. Once fracking is up and running it will become a vested interest. People's jobs will be based on it. Billions of pounds will be invested in it. Local councils, cities and governments will take tax from it. Politicians will be elected by it. It will become one more entrenched fossil fuel industry which will fight for its own existence long after we should be getting rid of it. Just like coal, just like oil. It is only natural. Well what about carbon capture? With that, fossil fuels are fine, no? Well, it is not running yet, and it may never be on the scale required. If it gets there maybe we can talk. Renewables and nuclear, however imperfect, do work, and the costs of renewables at least are falling all the time. Massive investment in new fossil fuel resources will only delay that transition.

Thirdly, we are told that gas is green. Well, compared to coal it is, but fracked gas is less green than conventional gas, and it is still a fossil fuel. Even if we keep to our carbon targets, presumably we will just sell our gas (and coal) elsewhere, increasing the sum total of carbon on the market. Similarly the LNG we will no longer import will just be sold elsewhere. Since the world has no carbon pricing mechanism capable of accounting for the true costs of these fuels, additional supplies will just hold down prices and make it harder for alternatives to compete.

It is also worth highlighting that these estimates of the 'greenness' of fracked gas are based on low fugitive emissions of methane, a powerful global warming agent. Done properly these can be as low as 2%. When are industrial processes like this ever done flawlessly? Deepwater anyone? Exxon Valdez? There will be accidents and leaks and sloppy practices. There always are. In fact there is already a great deal of controversy as the extent of these secondary emissions, with some suggesting that they have been significantly underestimated.1 And who will monitor them? The Environment Agency is being gutted, shedding hundreds of jobs, just when we need them most. Perhaps the industry will be allowed to police itself?

Finally, we are told we will avoid some of the local pollution seen in the US because we will have stronger regulations. Maybe. But fracking will still be using huge amounts of water, still pumping toxic chemicals into the ground, still increasing pressure on land and still building thousands of wells and access roads in a densely populated country. That does not seem overly green to me. We are asked to believe that the industry will be so well regulated that this will not be a problem, yet even during the height of the fracking controversy, when Cuadrilla was drilling test rigs in full glare of the media, they could not get it right. The company is alleged to have  trespassed on land and being forced to pay out to landowners.2 If they cannot get it right then, imagine what it will be like in the future?

So that's it. We need some gas, but we are not likely to run out of conventional sources any time soon. As for the rest, I would rather see our efforts go into a truly low carbon future than in simply propping up another entrenched industry that will damage our environment and fight all future attempts to remove it. If new information comes along I will be happy to look again, but from what I know at the moment, large scale fracking seems like a mistake. 

1. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/11/20/1314392110.abstract
2. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/02/fracking-cuadrilla-trespassed-private-land

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