by James Riley
Policy decisions are rarely made on scientific evidence alone. In fact, science has only a small part to play in the convoluted world of policy. In this light, perhaps it is unsurprising that even though we have seen vehement anti-fracking protests across the UK in recent months, it looks like the controversial process will be going ahead as planned.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which hundreds of gallons of pressurised water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the ground to open up trapped deposits of gas. In the current controversy the focus is on shale gas extraction, although fracking can be used to extract various gases for use as fuel. The process is nothing new. It made its first appearance in 1947 and was first commercially implemented in 1949.
(Illustration of the hydraulic fracturing process. Image Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency)
Recent events have sparked public opposition to fracking, with many perceiving the risks outweighing the benefits. In 2011, two earthquakes struck Lancaster following prospective fracking exercises by Caudrilla Resources (the main company with fracking contracts within the UK), resulting in a nationwide moratoria while a formal investigation into fracking’s dangers took place.
However, the risks of fracking stretch beyond the chance of mild earth tremors. And it is these environmental concerns which activist groups like Greenpeace are desperately trying to bring to the public’s attention.
In their recent publication, “Fracking: What’s the Evidence?”, Greenpeace set out the wealth of environmental consequences aligned to this extraction technique. Greenpeace says about its report: “From water pollution, to gas flares, to seismic activity to property prices, the report takes an in-depth look at what fracking involves, and the key social and environmental risks that should be taken into consideration as the UK Government attempts to open England up to this new form of extreme energy.”
One major concern raised over the fracking procedure is the contamination of groundwater, and the possible contamination of drinking water. In the USA this has indeed taken place, although the Geological Society has said that with proper regulations in place, the contamination of groundwater should not be an issue. Another consideration is the fact that fracking uses a large amount of water and some groups claim the water supply couldn’t take the strain. In reality fracking in the UK should only require the use of around 0.01% of the current usage.
But even without these various local environmental concerns, it would still be true that one of the major risks of fracking is our continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the inability to cut our emissions; therefore the inability to halter the seemingly glacial march of climate change. This is one of the biggest concerns anti-fracking groups can urge, and it is almost an uncontested one from the supporters of fracking. Some politicised points about shale gas producing less greenhouse emissions than coal have been made however, along with the claim that it is a “greener alternative” to traditional fossil fuels.
The UK government has agreed to a number of targets aimed at decarbonising the home economy. This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which promises an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050. The Kyoto Protocol gave rise to the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes it the duty of the Secretary of State to adhere to cutting the greenhouse emissions laid out within the Kyoto agreement. Although large original signatories, such as the United States and Canada, have since not ratified the agreement and subsequently dropped out, the protocol is still taken seriously within European governments.
Our reduction promises are one point which anti-fracking campaigners have cited in opposition to fracking. In a world where we are committed to reducing our greenhouse emissions, should we not be more focused on alternative forms of energy such as wind farms, solar panels and tidal generators? These technologies have benefited other European economies, whilst continuing to honour the Kyoto agreement. Germany, for example, which boasts Europe’s leading economy, now produces over 25% of their energy from renewables in this way.
(Fracking protest south of Balcombe, 18 August 2013. Image Credit: © Copyright Robin Webster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)
On 27th September, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth Assessment Report and in response to this comprehensive collection of climate change science, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, Edward Davey acknowledged:
“The message of this report is clear – the Earth’s climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.”
This is where the intersection of politics and science is greatly evident. Quite obviously, shale gas will be contributing to climate change. Quite obviously, it is not a green alternative. And, quite obviously, the solutions are not being “set in motion today”. Yet it seems like the government are set to launch full-scale shale extraction within the UK.
On the 24th January, 2014, David Cameron said to the World Economic Forum (Davos): “Governments need to reassure people that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. But if this is done properly, shale gas can actually have lower emissions than imported gas. We should be clear that if the European Union or its member states impose burdensome, unjustified or premature regulatory burdens on shale gas exploration in Europe investors will quickly head elsewhere.”
From Cameron’s focus on loss of investors over the environmental consequences, it is quite obvious that there are more factors in this decision than solely the scientific evidence of environmental damage and climate change contribution.
For some time now the UK, like a lot of European countries, has been trying to decouple its energy dependence from Russia. With current Ukrainian crisis highlights the fragility of the West’s relationship with the old Soviet state. Although the UK’s gas imports from Russia are now only around 1%, we still import over 40% of our coal and solid fuels from the nation.
(Russian oil and gas pipelines to Europe. Image Credit: US Department of Energy)
Russia’s power on the world stage comes mainly from its abundance of energy resources. These are resources which Russia has exploited for power in the past. Even despite the West’s efforts to reduce our dependence on Russian power, statistics from 2010 show how Russia’s energy exports were more than twice as much as any other OECD country, and represented a massive 40% of the total OECD energy exports.
With the recent events in the Ukraine, giving fracking the go ahead seems to makes more and more political sense. Even though there may be water contamination, even though there may be earthquakes, even though it will not be a step in the direction of fulfilling our Kyoto Protocol obligations, there is a sense that somehow the scientific facts of the dangers are going to give way to possible political dangers of not acting. This is not a certainty, but it seems likely.
When calculating the risks of such a decision, it is a fine balance of deciding between two possible futures. One in which your obligations to reducing greenhouse gases helps to curb insidious climate change, which may for the most part be irreversible; and the other option, the reduction of dependence on the energy exports of a country vying for power, a country which has used its position as an energy provider for geopolitical influence and intimidation before, and could easily choose that path again. When presented as two options it becomes clear how the waters of policy can become muddied by much more than just science’s view the world. Not that these two futures are the only possible options, there is the truly green alternative. Is it not time we start to take renewable energy more seriously?
P Bolton (2013) Energy Imports and Exports. House of Commons Library. Social & General Statistics. 30th August 2013
D Cameron (2014) World Economic Forum (Davos): Speech by David Cameron. Cabinet Office. 30th January 2014
K Cumming (2013) Fracking: What’s the Evidence? Greenpeace. Available at: | http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/fracking-evidence-report. Accessed 10/03/2014
E Davey. (2012) New controls announced for shale gas exploration. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United Kingdom Government: Published 13th Dec 2012.
E Davey, (2013) Response to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5): The Latest Assessment of Climate Science. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United Kingdom Government. 27th Sept 2013.
Royal Society (2012) Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing. Royal Society Policy Projects. June 2012