Saturday, 22 November 2014
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Putting our faith in a fracking dream is a dangerous mistake

Perhaps it’s the sunshine, but I desperately wanted to write about a new sense of optimism in UK industry this morning. We may be a long way from true recovery but positive economic statistics, billions of pounds of foreign investment, new infrastructure development and a renewed focus on industrial research give us real reasons to be positive about the future.

The Olympics may or may not have created a £10bn boost to the economy but it appeared to represent a mental turning point. As I was reminded at this week’s Royal Academy of Engineering Awards, British engineering has a lot to be proud of and we are now far more confident in showing it off to the world.

But my mood has been sadly disrupted by news that George Osborne is ramping up his “dash for gas” and plans to halve the tax bill for fossil fuel companies who start fracking the English countryside. The promise of a glut of cheap gas that brings down the heating bills of hard-pressed families and helps cut the UK’s carbon emissions by displacing coal – and creates thousands of jobs at the same time – is an attractive one.

But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and, so far, evidence is severely lacking. Yes, we’ve seen the reports that Britain may be sitting on top of trillions of cubic metres of shale gas, but how much of it we can viably extract and what impact it will have on prices are still big unknowns.

A recent inquiry by industry and academic experts led by a former Tory energy minister and a Labour peer was the latest to conclude that the amount of economically recoverably shale gas in the UK remained highly uncertain, the environmental risks were poorly understood, and the near-term impact of fracking would be to diversify Britain’s energy exports rather than significantly lower prices.

The US may be reaping the benefits of its own shale gas revolution but the UK is a very different place. Instead of wide-open and sparsely populated plains that can be industrialised with little opposition, we have a crowded island where green countryside is preciously guarded and environmental damage would be more keenly felt.

The £100,000 per well that Osborne is offering to communities that host fracking sites won’t go far in an era of massive public spending cuts and seems small fry compared to the tax cuts (from 62 per cent to 30 per cent) being offered to an already wealthy industry that could make billions more. How easily will fracking operations be set up in the Tory shires that display such opposition to windmills?

We also have tighter regulations making operations more costly and an energy market that is tied more closely with that of our neighbours. As the Carbon Connect report put it: ‘Our liberalised and highly interconnected market would prevent prices remaining artificially low compared with neighbouring markets.’

With so many uncertain factors, it would be immensely foolish to tie ourselves to a strategy of more gas-fired power stations when we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move away from a reliance on fossil fuels. If the shale gas dreams turn out to be nothing more than hallucinations, we’ll be left at the mercy of an international market struggling with ever-increasing demand from rapidly developing countries.

Then, of course, come the environmental issues. Fears about earthquakes are a red herring – research has found fracking represents a similar a threat in this sense to coal mining and that resulting tremors would unlikely be felt at the surface. But what of the chemicals pumped into the ground and their impact on the water supply? Water firms have this week warned again of the dangers fracking pose both from its chemicals and its high water usage.

The Environment Agency says companies will only be allowed to use non-hazardous substances and the UK oil and gas industry likes to boast about its strong safety and environmental record. Behind the scenes, however, some experts are not so confident the rules will be strictly followed, and oil and chemical leaks are still common on North Sea rigs.

Perhaps most importantly of all, fracking will not reduce carbon emissions. Shale gas might help the UK meet its medium term CO2 targets but a greater supply of fossil fuels will put downwards pressure on prices and deter countries from decarbonising. We’re already seeing it happen in Europe, where coal consumption has increased thanks to a surge in US exports as the country switches to shale.

Simply put, the more fossil fuels the world takes out of the ground, the more carbon it will emit and the greater the risk of runaway climate change. There are so many uncertainties around fracking but we can be sure of one thing: it’s not the answer to the world’s climate problem.


Readers' comments (30)

  • We have a near crisis in climate change due to the release of carbon from fossil fuel use, so what do we do? Rush to release more carbon of course. If shale-gas was priced for the atmospheric legacy clean-up included it would be very very expensive, many times the cost of even fission power.................. but here is a demonstration of the effects of lobbying by the petrochem industry.

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  • What a load of bull by a liberal warmist luddite. He just regurgitates a lot of baloney about fracking along with the lies he has swallowed about so-called global warming. Here are some points to consider

    1. Fracking does not cause ground water pollution. See latest study at
    http://www.postbulletin.com/news/nation/dep-study-fracking-chemicals-didn-t-taint-water/article_ad896d7c-d474-5a80-9106-e376519fd986.html

    2. Fracking does not cause earthquakes. Even the silly author of the article admits that.

    3. Global warming is a bunch of liberal crap. The world hasn't warmed for the past 17 years. Only the grantistas believe it anymore. Anyway, the use of Nat Gas from fracking has reduced carbon emissions in the US.

    4. In the US, fracking has caused the price of gas to halve from the price paid in Europe.

    5. FRacking generates a lot of tax revenues for both the local communites and the federal government. Even with reduced tax rates for fracking, that is still income which will be lost if there is no fracking.

    6. There will be lots of jobs for fracking well operators, which will generate income for individuals and tax (personal income tax and VAT) for the government.

    7. There will be lots of jobs for engineers. Industry is picking up in the former Rust belt of the US due to provision of infrastructure for the fracking industry. There is a huge demand for geo-science engineers. Salaries in the fracking areas of the US are double that of the rest of the country.


    So, the uneducated author wants the UK to forego all of these benefits due to some unproven claims of ground-water contamination and his false theology based on global warming.

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  • What we do here in the UK will have little effect on the world's total CO2 levels. Developing countries hold the key to that. They are in need of our help to develop more 'earth friendly' supplies of energy, like geo-thermal and solar in the hotter climes. Effectively, if we use the excess funds created by using cheap supplies from fracking for developing systems for use in the developing countries, then that will have a greater long-term benefit for all concerned. Though there could be opponents to the altruistic move.

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  • Has no one in the UK seen the much acclaimed film 'Gaslands'. If they had then the opposition to fracking would be much greater than it currently is. the very thought of some greedy oil giant destroying our environment the way they are doing in the US makes me very angry. it is time that some brave TV channel broadcast both Gaslands and gaslands 2 both of which have been broadcast by HBO in the US.
    Maybe the we would see some more pressure on the 'frackers'.

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  • If there is anything to reassure the general public, as a first step, and compulsorily, fracking companies should be required to release information about the chemical admixes they are using and injecting with what their advocates cite as 'sand and water'. Try Google to uncover what is actually used. Information appears veiled and secretive; itself a worry.

    So for the energy issue; like other fossil fuels their value as a feedstock into chemical processes should outweigh any inclination simply to burn them. Once gone they are irreplaceable and we continue to cause environmental harm in the burning processes.

    Day to day energy needs should steadily and increasingly be drawn from renewable sources.

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  • So you want the UK to pass over what looks like 100 years of energy independance because we may put out a bit more CO2 than the crazy target set by Tony Blair. Our current annual output of CO2 is less than the Chinese annual increase. Get real, what we do has no effect in real terms. The sooner we repeal the disasterous Climate Change Act the better. Lets have a proper energy policy and join the real world instead of this fantasy world in which useless highly subsidised Wind Turbines as promoted as adding vast sums to our energy bills.

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  • Good to hear a bit of common sense on shale gas at last. The queue of anonymous bloggers and dutiful Tory (and few LibDems and Labour MPs to boot) all jumping on the 'cutting gas costs in half' PR line is distressing. We have a habit of jumping on the band-wagon of miracle energy cures as get out of jail cards in the UK, rather than sticking with sustained policies as they come through with the goods. Just at the time when renewable power gets through the key first 10% figure and 'green gas' from AD starts to feed into the national gas grid, lets ditch or diminish support for all this and throw all our political marbles into fracking.

    We've been here before - witness three times for nuclear, nuclear fusion, now we have shale gas.

    You don't have to be a liberal to believe in Climate Change - 97% of all peer reviewed papers in the past decade have supported the theory and impacts of climate change. That is distinct from selective opinions like yours.

    The green economy is real and is creating jobs - we need to stick with the job and really support renewable sin getting to 20% not throwing away the hard work into another dash for gas

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  • Instead of pushing efforts to use more gas/fossil fuels,why are greater efforts not being made into research in wave/tidal generation,a source which can be depended upon?
    Wind power is unreliable,solar means acres of panels & no solution in sight for disposal of nuclear waste.

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  • No need for such ridiculous pessimism. The totally unexpected lack of warming of the past 16 years has shown that the science behind the theory is more uncertain than ever and estimates for future warming are dropping all the time.

    Shale gas may or may not work but it doesn't even need those tiny subsidies - in total contrast to wind, solar and nuclear power. So we can just leave it alone and monitor it.

    Green energy would be wonderful but it's not viable from wind alone. I have hopes for solar and wave energy but so far they are nowhere. Most of the best ideas still all depend on the use of gas somehow, including the Greenpeace CHP plan! My own current favourite is the idea of a solid oxide fuel cell in every house; no need for new infrastructure and green enough for Google! We could then transition to biogas gradually per a plausible plan the Scandinavians envisage. Meantime we can even reduce our CO2 output just as the USA did - by using gas. room for optimism I'd say.

    Robins idea of a petrochemical lobby is a conspiracy theory. If there was such a thing then the ruinous climate change act would never have passed.

    Finally folks - what else do we have to avoid bankrupcy? You all better hope that fracking works! It's a start at laest.

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  • If there is one thing wrong with this country which we can do something about, it is procrastination!!

    Stop talking about the shale gas and get it out of the ground, then we will find out how much there is.

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