Fracking: not cheap, not safe, not welcome

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Why the fight against ‘hydraulic fracturing’ for natural gas has become a key focus of environmental protests in Britain

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by Ken Montague

Ken Montague is the secretary of the UK Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group. This article was published in Socialist Review.


The growing resistance to fracking – the “hydraulic fracturing” of deep level shale rocks to extract natural gas – promises to reignite the climate movement after years of demoralisation following the failure of the UN climate talks in 2009.

A feature of the recent march and blockades at Cuadrilla Resources’ drilling site near Balcombe in West Sussex was the diversity of the people involved, as well as the numbers. Local residents were central to the protests, as they have been at Fylde, near Blackpool, where two Cuadrilla fracking operations led to minor earthquakes.

Today there are 45 anti-fracking groups around the country preparing to take action when further licences are issued. Given that 64 percent of England sits above shale gas and oil deposits, and their commercial exploitation could mean thousands of fracking sites, the protests are likely to increase and erupt into a full-scale war of attrition against the Cameron government and its dash for gas.

What has made fracking such an explosive issue is the evidence after 20 years of drilling in the US that the process is inherently unsafe. This is due to the uncontrolled leakage of methane into the air and groundwater, and the possible risks to health of the chemical additives in the fracking fluid used to prize the rocks open. Methane is a neurotoxin, which can cause early-onset dementia. The mix of additives, which in America has found its way into drinking water, includes chemicals that are known to be toxic or carcinogenic.

The British government says that fracking will only be permitted under strict regulation. But this ignores the fact that we do not have the technology to ensure that the cement barriers encasing the drilling shafts can withstand the pressures involved or that gas can be prevented from escaping from the pipelines and processing units.

Studies in the US showed that in 45 percent of cases the barriers failed at some point in the process and 5 percent of rigs leaked from the start.

The other, broader, issue is the government’s intention to make gas a “core part” of Britain’s energy mix “well into and beyond” 2030. This flies in the face of the warnings by many authorities that, with the unabated burning of fossil fuels, the world is on course for an unthinkable temperature increase of 4 to 6 degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century.

A recent report by Lord Stern and the Carbon Tracker think-tank made it clear that, if we are to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change, we have to switch to renewables now, and leave 80 percent of coal, gas and oil reserves “in the ground”.

Last year the government’s decision to cut investment in renewables and make Britain “even more attractive” for the oil and gas companies provoked an angry letter from its independent Committee on Climate Change stating categorically that gas-fired power generation “could not form the basis for government policy” if it was to meet its carbon reduction targets.

Of course there are apologists for fracking who argue that gas can be a “transitional” fuel because it emits only 50 percent of the CO2 emitted by coal. In a recent speech on climate change, US president Barack Obama even referred to it as “clean” energy. This overlooks the effect of the leakage of methane, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

For natural gas to be cleaner than coal, methane emissions would need to be kept below 2 percent of annual production, but recent studies by the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration at gas fields in California, Colorado and Utah found that leakages ranged between 2.3 percent and 17 percent of production.

As well as giving tax breaks to the fracking companies and cash sweeteners to local communities, the government tries to sell us fracking by saying it will offer unlimited cheap energy and create thousands of jobs.

The Committee on Climate Change, however, has shown that extracting gas is actually more costly than installing renewables and even Cuadrilla admits that the impact on fuel bills would be negligible.

Leaving aside Green MP Caroline Lucas’s comment that “there are no jobs on a dead planet”, there is clear evidence that renewables generate more jobs than fossil fuel industries. A study by the University of Massachusetts Political Economy Research Institute suggests that a million dollars invested in gas would create five jobs while the same amount invested in wind and solar power would create around 13 jobs. This is the kind of argument behind the growing campaign in Britain for a million climate jobs.

Fracking for gas is not safe, not clean, not cheap, and nor the best way to create jobs or to tackle climate change. Nonetheless, Lord John Browne, the government’s chief adviser on the subject, says it’s the way forward. He should know; he is chairman and 30 percent owner of Cuadrilla.