Monday, 22 July 2013

Fracking hell!

So far the market town of Spalding in South Lincolnshire seems to have escaped the rush for shale gas. But the town already has one gas fired power station dominating the flat Fenland landscape, with another one to be built alongside it on the way. And if our local MPs have anything to do with it fracking for shale gas won't be far behind...

For some UK Government ministers and MPs - including Spalding's John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) and Peterborough’s Stewart Jackson - the enthusiasm for mining shale gas is in part fuelled by a passionate hatred of wind power based largely on the latter’s aesthetic impact on local landscapes.

Blinkered by what they see as a golden economic opportunity, it is perhaps not surprising that such MPs, along with the coalition Government in general, assume the extraction of shale gas offers a palatable and commercially attractive energy source.

Fracking - short for hydraulic fracturing - involves drilling deep underground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside.

Preparing the groundwork for last week’s Government tax-break announcement for fracking prospectors, Jackson used his weekly column in the Peterborough Telegraph (5 July) to promote the shale gas case.

He wrote: "Shale gas exploration gives us another once in a lifetime opportunity with clean, cheap, plentiful and safe shale gas - rather than the lights on the blink and half a million glass panels around Newborough [near Peterborough] and windfarms to boot!

"Government has wised up to the economically damaging Liberal Democrat-inspired green policies costing the UK tens of billions of pounds," he declared.

Hayes, a former energy minister, has clearly stated his opposition to development of many forms of renewable energy and has lent his support to numerous anti-windfarm campaigns across his South Holland constituency, often on the grounds that they would ‘spoil’ the local view and amenity.

The wind power industry has had to deal with a broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact. So far this doesn’t seem to be on the shale gas radar.

But type ‘shale gas rig’ into an internet search engine and select ‘images' to see a taster of what might actually be in store for any rural community where drilling might take place.

We're likely to see the industrialisation of tracts of the British countryside, gas flaring in the home counties and a steady stream of trucks carrying contaminated water down rural lanes.

Another problem with fracking for gas is that the drilling process releases a host of undesirable by-products into the atmosphere, including large quantities of methane.

Strategic opposition to the development of shale gas in the UK rests on the fact that such large-scale exploitation is not compatible with meeting our targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase (considered a critical danger threshold), then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground.

The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new ‘dash for gas’ should be Plan Z, not Plan A.

All this makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country, which the Government seems determined to ignore in its public pronouncements.

The industry will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced.

And no one really knows how much of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost both financially and to the environment at large.

Production rates for the UK are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards and the proximity of populated areas.

Add to that the expectation that it will not in reality reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks a lot more risky than proponents and our Government suggest.

But where there are potentially large amounts of money to be made there are also vested interests at stake.

So far the Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to dodge the claim that he bowed to pressure from lobbyists such as the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby over the Government decision to give tax breaks for fracking.

Last week The Independent newspaper detailed the work that Mr Crosby's lobbying firm, Crosby Textor, does on behalf of companies promoting the controversial method of extracting shale gas.

The shale gas narrative and tax break presented by George Osborne last week is also, in part, based on the fear of being ‘left behind'.

Osborne’s Environment Minister colleague Owen Paterson (who dismayed climate scientists by expressing doubts as to the human impact on the climate system) used the same phrase in his promotion of GM crops.

Both Osborne and Paterson say that a technological revolution based on government getting out of the way of progress is what we need. They couldn't be more wrong.

Where we are being left behind is in the development of new environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas in the mix, it requires clear policy.

You can get away with small government on some issues, but not on energy. The UK needs a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don't have that.

The dash for shale - with all its inherent risks and uncertainties - ignores the massive growth potential of the renewable sector and the vital long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Look at Germany, for instance. Some 26 per cent of its energy now comes from renewable sources. And its renewables industry is growing because it gets tax breaks. Germany's economy is larger, more successful and infinitely more resilient than the UK's. So who is right?

The current UK Government - initially hailed by Cameron as ‘the greenest ever’ - is a liturgy of broken promises and short-term opportunism. When it comes to energy policy and the long-term future of our country it seems that little George has no idea. And neither has little Britain.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information

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