My generation, those who were born in the mid to late 80’s and early 90’s have had their births coincide with a rise in debate around climate change and our ever dwindling fossil fuel resources. We have seen recycling shift from something that was still vaguely outlandish, to a regular household occurrence. We have witnessed oil crises, fuel price hikes, ever more inventive means of energy extraction in the face of limited resources and we have seen climate change and fossil fuels become central topics in electoral and international politics. These creeping changes have been a constant background noise in the day-to-day lives of many since the 80’s, when scientists first showed concerns about global warming and our limited fossil fuel supplies. We have heard evidence form scientists prophesising the dangers of a global temperature rise of just a few centigrade, including severe weather systems, draughts, crop failure and disease and we have also heard from climate change deniers, those who argue that climate change is a natural event that mankind holds no responsibility for.
In the midst of this public discourse, Britain has tuned to hydraulic fracturing – or fracking, a means of fossil fuel gas extraction in an attempt to decrease the rising cost of fuel. Frack works by pumping high volumes of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break shale rock apart and release methane gas. Fracking has been underway in the US for a decade now and has been highly effective in dropping the spiking price of natural gas and currently accounts for 25% of the countries gas supply. Those in favour of bringing fracking to Britain argue it will make way for a new era of cheaper energy and is far less visually intrusive than wind farms or above ground fuel mines.
However, these benefits come at a cost. Fracking has been condemned by environmentalists for continuing our reliance on fossil fuels and for the risks involved in extraction. In Wyoming and Pennsylvania, where shale mining is wide spread, there have been examples of aquifers being ruptured by the below ground explosions involved. Drinking water was found to contain radioactive isotopes, benzene, toluene, ethylenzene and xylene – known carcinogens and acidifiers. There is also evidence also suggests airborne carcinogens are emitted in the nearby area. Despite these concerns, communities have found themselves powerless to speak out against the arrivisme of the large corporations responsible. Further compounding the communities worries, the US government’s Environmental Protection Agency warned that water supplies contaminated by fracking are “typically too expensive to remediate or restore”. The backlash against these discoveries was understandably immense and has caught public and media attention. Mat Damon is set to star in a film against fracking and the documentary, Gasland, highlighting the pollution caused by fracking in Pennsylvania was nominated for an Oscar. But still the highly lucrative shale mining industry continues.
The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, who are responsible for the introduction of fracking to the UK, have stated that there is little chance of such a catastrophe in Britain - but then similar assurances were made in Wyoming and Pennsylvania a decade ago. The DECC’s mollifications are of little solace to those in Lancashire, where fracking is already underway and fears of ruptured aquifers run high among the community. The UK had its own warning of the dangers inherent in fracking, when a well just outside of Blackpool caused earthquakes measuring 2.3 and 1.5 on the Richter scale. The Department of Energy and Climate Change issued a further report arguing that there is scant danger from these ‘controlled’ detonations and that they are a routine part of the fracking process. But is there really such a thing as a controlled earthquake? Reports from members of nearby communities describe new cracks appearing in houses and doors that no longer shut as a result of these quakes.
The biggest problem with fracking though, is not the obvious dangers present in carrying out a process that is not yet fully understood or researched. Studies made thus far have found that fracking does indeed cause above and below ground pollution - but at a level not much higher than more conventional oil and gas operations. The real problem with fracking is that it reeks of desperation. The act of drilling as far as 3km underground, before drilling horizontally into shale rock and pumping the ground full of water, sand and chemical lubricants to release methane gas is ingenious. But it is ingenuity pointed in the wrong direction. We are truly scraping the barrel of the earth’s fossil fuel reserves and the resourcefulness involved could be put to better use in the renewable energy industry.
When David Cameron was elected, he promised his Conservative government would be the ‘greenest government ever’. The introduction of fracking, rather than increasing investment in renewable energy sources, appears to suggest the contrary. In the recent Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) Event, Cameron acknowledged that rising gas prices, rather than green policies, are the leading cause of the energy bill hikes recently faced by British consumers. This ran counter to previous claims that green energy investment was sending the monthly price of household energy soaring and goes a long way towards explaining the decision to follow the US and introduce shale mines to the UK.
However, the CEM was attended by ministers from 23 different countries and was an ideal opportunity to show British commitment to renewable energy and a move away from fossil fuel dependency. The UK is uniquely situated in a position to invest heavily in environmental energy; the North Sea holds potentially limitless opportunities as a wind farm and as a source of marine energy. With these resources, Britain could pave the way in renewable, home sourced energy for the future but instead, our ministers continue to flirt with short sighted, slipshod energy fixes such as shale mining and fossil fuel investment, overlooking the long-term environmental, consumer and economic gains to be reaped from investing early in renewable energy.
Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency warns that “under current policies we estimate energy use and CO2 emissions will increase by a third by 2020, and almost double by 2050. This would probably send global temperatures at least 6C higher within this century” a warning that is in stark contrast to the Climate Change Act that commits the UK to reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 – which even if achieved only lessens and does not prevent the chances of the global climate increasing by 2C this century. Introducing Fracking to the UK further undermines such cavalier preventative measures; shale mining is deeply inconsistent with the aim of tackling climate change and diverts investment from renewable energy sources.
Admittedly, renewable energy technology needs to become more affordable but this could easily be accomplished. As it stands, the government continues to indirectly subsidise fossil fuel in the UK through the use of VAT breaks that amounted to around £3.36bn in 2010. These tax breaks only increase the price gap between fossil and renewable energy sources. A change of policy to cease these breaks would be a significant step in the right direction. Our government is understandably in a difficult position, having to avoid fuel hikes and create green energy opportunities, but they appear to have concluded that it is better to be seen to be acting through rhetoric and CEM events, rather than to act decisively and reallocate subsidies. The ridiculousness of such a system seems obvious to those not invested but inescapable to those who are.
Sadly, our government appears to suffer from severe myopia and the introduction of fracking to the UK continues. Despite the obvious long-term benefits of green energy investment, despite surveys suggesting that over 67% of the UK are against further mines and despite the fact that France and Bulgaria have already made the process illegal. Tara Choudhury , an eleven year old school girl from Lancashire, gained attention on both sides of the Atlantic when she made a video illustrating the dangers of hydraulic fracturing and won the opportunity to speak to MEP’s as a part of a ‘Have your Say on Sustainability’ competition. To counteract such negative press in the US, the shale mine industry has once again shown its ingenious and clandestine nature by creating a colouring book issued in schools. Calgary’s Talisman Energy concocted their own mascot – a ‘Fracosaurus’ who introduces himself to children, perhaps rather mendaciously with the words; “Hello, my name is Talisman Terry, your friendly Fracosaurus. I am here to teach you about a clean energy source called Natural Gas, found right here in the Twin Tiers!” – The irony of having a dinosaur as a fossil fuel mascot is not to be overlooked.
We have been told that water shortages to become more and more common in the future. It is completely incomprehensible, therefore, that this announcement by the Department of Energy and Climate Change should coincide with their go-ahead for hydraulic fracturing that uses on average 7-11 million litres of water per well, rendering this water highly toxic. In the short term these wells may bring a sharp decline in gas prices, making the average consumer better off, but the long-term outlook is not as rosy. Like so many admonitions, the danger is that the risks involved in shale mining and fossil fuel dependency will float just under the pubic awareness, buried by more topical and salient issues. But shale mining and other fossil fuel extraction measures are an insidious and latent danger that we and future generations will have to face. It is better, cheaper and far more effective to act now. The problem is, as environmentalist Paul Gilding recently pointed out at TED, that we only tend to decisively act after a crisis. This human trait can be seen in how decisively America acted after the attack of Pearl Harbour – taking only four days to ban car production and redirect the auto-industry, or how when a person is told that they have a serious illness, lifestyle changes that were previously impossible suddenly seem effortless. It is easy to argue that the environmental crises are already upon us. This past decade we have seen an influx in severe weather patterns, draughts, food shortages and agricultural collapse. We have had the hottest decade on record for the third decade in a row and we have had endless warnings that our oil and gas reserves will run out in the next forty years. Now is not the time to point our ingenuity towards rinsing the earth of fossil fuel supplies, now is the time to invest in our future through renewable energy sources. We are currently on a course that will bring about the end of fossil fuel. Sadly, this isn’t by choice, but by utter depletion of resources. Before we get there, we are set to see just how bad our reliance on fossil fuel will be for the environment and ourselves in the coming years.
It is perhaps too late to completely stop the damage done, but it is not too late to lessen the blow. We can make a difference by voicing our concerns wherever possible, by being more environmentally aware and by taking a long-term and abstemious view to our use of fossil energy. In the modern world, the individual can often find themselves feeling insignificant and powerless – but it only takes a brief look at history to see that this is not the case. Time and time again, individuals have been the motivators of great change. It’s time that we acted to say no to fracking, no to further fossil fuel investment and no to the immoderate use of natural resources. There is no economic of technological boundary in the way, only the refocusing of our ingenuity.