Who Benefits From Fracking?

By Jon Crooks, published on The News Hub on 12th February and Campaign for the North blog on 17th February

 

The question was asked last week at a Guardian Live event in Manchester entitled ‘Fracking – friend or foe?’ On the panel was Dr Nick Riley, formerly Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society and clearly an enthusiastic supporter of fracking. He tried to look sincere as he answered that it was “for the people”. He was drowned out by laughter.

The room was inevitably filled with concerned citizens from around the north west, and there’s no doubt from the comments and questions that here it very much feels like fracking is for the benefit of the fracking industry and central government and not for the people at all. As one member of the audience put it: it feels like it is being “done to us”.

Lancashire is the Front Line in this Battle

Lancashire has been at the forefront of the UK’s nascent shale gas industry and two Cuadrilla sites on the Fylde may soon become the test bed for the so called shale gas revolution.

Small earthquakes caused by Cuadrilla’s activity in 2011 saw a moratorium put in place, but once it was lifted the company submitted plans for up to four wells at each of two sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre wood. Each of these sites would see hundreds of fracks – the high pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals – to see how much gas can be released.

Planning officers last month concluded that the increase in night-time noise from the operations would be too great at both sites and that heavy truck movements would involve a “severe” increase in traffic, particularly HGVs. The decision by the council was therefore deferred for eight weeks to allow for further public consultation, but this has angered some people as it gives Cuadrilla more time to tinker with their application and manipulate the planning system.

Removal of Democracy

Many at the debate in Manchester last week argued that there has been a removal of democracy from the whole process from start to finish. As one Lancashire councillor who was in the audience pointed out, plans to introduce fracking in the UK wasn’t in any of the election manifestos of the three main parties in the lead up to the last General Election, yet all three are supportive of this new fossil fuel industry in some form.

The coalition government came to power promising Localism. But when they don’t like local decisions, they change the rules. The humongous ‘Infrastructure Bill’ that has now been passed into law will in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent. A new quango will be set up, to be known as the Homes and Communities Agency, where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just two inspectors will control many of our planning decisions. This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.

Also part of this enormous piece of legislature is the Trespass Law, which allows drilling beneath our homes without our permission.

Whilst it seemed at first that Labour would only back the bill if the Tories agreed to their strict regulatory protections, these protections were ultimately watered down. The new protections will rule out fracking in certain protected areas such as national parks, but it is not yet clear if this will include all the areas initially intended. Groundwater source areas should also be protected, but this is clearly not a priority for government or the opposition as the definition was weakened in the final draft by removing reference to Groundwater Source Protection Zones 1-3, as defined by the Environment Agency.

In any case, these new protections will not effect Cuadrilla’s two sites in Lancashire. So now ministers need to explain why if fracking is too risky in our National Parks, how is it safe for the rest of the UK? As Louise Hutchins at Greenpeace UK has said, why is it “too risky for the South Downs, but perfectly safe in the Lancashire countryside?”

The Infrastructure Bill – Letter to my Labour MP

I am writing to you as one of your constituents to express my concerns over the new Infrastructure Bill. This bill is so big and complex, and covers so many topics, that it makes a mockery of democracy. It epitomises the rising trend of legislation-stuffing: cramming so many unrelated issues into one bag that parliamentary votes become meaningless. MPs must either accept this great bundle of unrelated measures in its entirety or reject it in its entirety. This means laws can pass which no one in their right mind would have voted for. 

The three main elements of the bill that concern me most however are:

Roads

Air pollution is now the world’s chief killer. In 2012, it was the source of around 7 million premature deaths. In the UK, it has reached illegal highs and takes the lives of 29,000 people every year. A new report from the environmental audit committee dubs air pollution “a public health imperative”, and concludes that to save lives “urgent change is needed”.

But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention anything about clean air targets. Instead, it emphasises big road investment to the tune of £15bn. This includes 1,300 miles in new traffic lanes. Road traffic is the primary contributor to air pollution in most parts of the UK. And new roads don’t cut congestion. Even government studies show that. They simply lead to more jams, exacerbate emissions and erode our countryside. Increasing major road capacity simply stimulates a further growth in traffic, which means that more road schemes are needed etc etc. In the long run, congestion returns and pollution is greater as total traffic volume increases. The main beneficiaries are road building companies.

Labour is outraged of course, but not from any climate or health concern – it simply sulked that the government was all talk, and chastised it for failing to invest sooner – not just for roads but for airport expansion too.

Recent Department for Transport figures showed that local sustainable transport schemes returned £5 for every £1 spent. Clearly therefore, our £15bn would be far better used repairing existing roads, improving footpaths and adding cycle paths and on initiatives to boost public transport, walking and cycling.

Oil & Gas

Worst still, among this bill’s outrageous and scarcely-debated provisions, slipped in by the government some time after parliamentary debates began, is a measure that undermines every claim it has made about preventing dangerous climate change. It is a legal obligation on current and future governments to help trash the world’s atmosphere.

The government already has a legal obligation to do the opposite. The Climate Change Act 2008, supported by all the major parties, commits successive governments to minimise the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Infrastructure Act 2015 will commit successive governments to maximise them. Needless to say, that’s not quite how it is expressed. The bill obliges governments to produce strategies for “maximising the economic recovery of UK petroleum”: in other words for getting as much oil out of the ground as possible. Oil is extracted to be burnt; burning it releases greenhouse gases; maximising recovery means maximising greenhouse gases.

The Infrastructure Act, if passed – and so far it is scarcely being contested will be the Climate Change Act’s evil twin. Both acts oblige current and future governments to report at fixed periods on how they will achieve their contradictory objectives. The same person, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, will be responsible for both policies: ensuring that the UK both consumes less oil and produces more. 

But there could not be a greater contrast between the ways in which the two acts (or their relevant clauses) were developed. The Climate Change Act was the result of a massive campaigning effort, over many years, by citizens’ movements that mobilised public opinion and pressed MPs to act on it. The provisions in the infrastructure bill were slipped surreptitiously into the back of a legislative juggernaut that was already rolling down a six-lane motorway. In other words, the first act was an example of how democracy is supposed to work; the second is an example of how it gets corrupted.

Now, on the day that MPs sit down in committee to discuss this bill, the journal Nature publishes the most detailed scientific paper yet on how much fossil fuel should be left in the ground if we’re to have a chance of preventing more than 2C of global warmingTo deliver a 50% probability (which is not exactly reassuring) of no more than 2C of warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves unexploited. As I’m sure you know, reserves are just a small fraction of resources (which means all the minerals in the Earth’s crust). The reserve is that proportion of a mineral resource which has been discovered, quantified and is viable to exploit in current conditions: in other words that’s good to go.

The Nature paper estimates that a third of the world’s oil reserves, half its gas reserves and 80% of its coal reserves must be left untouched to avert extremely dangerous levels of global warming. 2C is dangerous enough; at present we are on course for around 5C by the time the century ends, with no obvious end in sight beyond 2100. The only sensible response to such findings, which some have been advocating for years, is a global agreement to leave these unburnable fossil fuels in the ground. But it’s not just that no such agreement exists, no such agreement has ever been mooted.

Researching Don’t Even Think About It, George Marshall discovered that there has not been a single proposal, debate or even position paper on limiting fossil fuel production put forward during international climate negotiations. “From the very outset fossil fuel production lay outside the frame of the discussions and, as with other forms of socially constructed silence, the social norms among the negotiators and policy specialists kept it that way.”

While most states have not taken the astonishing, ecocidal step of making it a legal obligation, almost all are pursuing the same policy as the United Kingdom: maximising the production of fossil fuels. And almost all pay lip service to the idea of minimising greenhouse gas emissions. There is no attempt to resolve this contradiction, or even to acknowledge it.

George Mombiot was the first person to suggest in the media that the best means of addressing climate change is to leave fossil fuels in the ground, in a Guardian column in 2007. Since then, this solution has been championed by the indefatigable Bill McKibben, through his Do the Math tour and 350.org, and it has been picked up by many other organisations. But still politicians pretend not to hear. Even the current secretary of state for energy and climate change in the UK, Ed Davey, who is often fairly responsive, blocks his ears and sings loudly when the crashing contradictions in his role are mentioned.

Were the world’s governments to regulate the wellhead rather than just the tailpipe, logistically the task would be a thousand times easier. Instead of trying to change the behaviour of 7bn people, they would need to control just a few thousand corporations. These companies would buy permits to extract fossil fuels in a global auction. As a global cap on the amount of fossil fuel that could be burnt came into force, the price would rise, making low carbon technologies, such as wind, solar and nuclear, much better investments. The energy corporations would then have no choice but to start getting out of dirt and into clean technologies. The money from the auction could be used either to compensate poorer nations for not following us down the coal hole or to help them survive in a world in which some dangerous warming – but hopefully no more than 2C – will inevitably occur.

Fracking

This government’s on a shale crusade and the infrastructure bill paves the way for this whole new fossil fuel industry. The bill awards the fracking industry sweeping new powers to run pipelines under private land without the consent of owners. It’s opposed by 75% of us, but what does public opinion matter?

Meanwhile, the UK’s renewables industry struggles to get a word in edge ways. The bill rightly talks a lot about jobs creation – the Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts fracking could generate up to 32,000. But despite the government’s cuts, the renewables industry already supports more than 100,000 jobs and a nationwide energy efficiency programme could create an additional 108,000 jobs every year between 2020 and 2030. The UK has some of Europe’s least energy-efficient housing – energy efficiency should be our number one infrastructure priority. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t even mention it.

To be fair, the bill does give a nod to community energy ownership rights – a small step in the right direction. But we should be taking giant leaps. Fracking has a limited lifespan. 

Ed Miliband recently proclaimed tackling climate change as “the most important thing” he could do in politics. If that’s true he should oppose The Infrastructure Bill and oppose Fracking. We’d receive a far richer return on our billions, economically and in energy security by going all out for homegrown renewables and energy efficiency. This would create jobs, slash emissions and cut fuel bills.

Fracking

Fracking

It’s acknowledged that it’s unlikely that it will be possible to extract shale gas in large volumes in the immediate future in the UK or that it will make a significant difference to consumer bills. The main political parties support of ‘fracking’ instead seems to be based on the potential opportunity it offers the UK to improve our security of energy supply, but what does that mean?

They talk a lot about regulation and monitoring, but there are no guarantees of safety when it comes to injecting a chemical cocktail of carcinogens into the earth’s crust. In the exploratory drilling process alone, the range of chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, pose a massive threat if they escape from the well and all wells leak eventually – 6% of gas wells leak immediately and 50% of all gas wells leak within 15 years. (1)

Since the start of the year, two UN climate reports have come out, which have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are rising faster than ever and that the only way to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is to switch urgently to renewable energy, reduce energy demand, and wean ourselves off fossil fuels for good.

Fracking releases methane into the Earth’s atmosphere which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, between 20 and 25 times more so, than CO2. (2)

Exploiting new sources of fossil fuel such as shale gas will radically undermine our stated aim of reducing emissions in order to meet our international obligations. It undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis – which in turn means our children will inherit a much more hazardous world.

We need to leave around 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. (3)

With this in mind, it makes no sense to start a new industry extracting shale oil and gas.

The exploration wells that we are seeing at the moment are just the start. Unconventional gas will require tens of thousands of wells over huge areas of the country. Production will require pipelines, compressor stations and waste disposal on a massive scale. The tiny exploration companies will be replaced by massive firms when they sell the information and licences they’ve gathered.

Fracking will accelerate climate change and pollute our environment. It will lead to yet more dependence on fossil fuel precisely when the overwhelming scientific and political consensus confirms that we need to move urgently in the opposite direction. The only safe and responsible thing to do with shale gas is to leave it in the ground. Fracking will not lower our fuel bills. It will not give us energy security and it will not create significant numbers of jobs.

Public support for fracking is at a low. Now is the time for politians working on energy policies and manifestos for the forthcoming election campaign to be bold and do the right thing. For inspiration look to Denmark. By 2020, the country aims to produce 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources and to make the switch to renewables completely by mid-century. They’re already at 43%. (4)

Meanwhile, the UK fracking industry themselves say it will take 5 years before they’ll even know if there’s the possibility of an industry.

Denmark has shown that industrialized countries are able to carry out real, genuine and rapid transition to renewable energy right here in Europe. If it’s security of energy supply they’re after, the answer is staring them in the face.

(1)    Fracking: Frequently Asked Questions – Friends of the Earth – http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/fracking-frequently-asked-questions-18022.pdf

(2)    Climate Change Connection – http://www.climatechangeconnection.org/emissions/CO2_equivalents.htm

(3)    80 Percent of the World’s Fossil Fuels Must Stay in the Ground to Avert Catastrophe – Christopher Hayes – The Nation – http://www.thenation.com/blog/179514/80-percent-worlds-fossil-fuels-must-stay-ground-avert-catastrophe#

(4)    Denmark leads the charge in renewable energy – DW – http://www.dw.de/denmark-leads-the-charge-in-renewable-energy/a-17603695

Fracking – 2nd letter to my MP dated 4 May 2014

Dear Mr Reynolds,

As one of your constituents, and as a Labour voter in the last general election, I wrote to you in January regarding fracking and was grateful for your considered response dated 30th January 2014.

I’m pleased that in your letter you acknowledged that it’s unlikely that it will be possible to extract shale gas in large volumes in the immediate future in the UK or that it will make a significant difference to consumer bills. Your support of ‘fracking’ instead is based on the potential “opportunity” it offers the UK to improve our “security of energy supply”, but what does that mean?

You talk a lot about regulation and monitoring, but there are no guarantees of safety when it comes to injecting a chemical cocktail of carcinogens into the earth’s crust. In the exploratory drilling process alone, the range of chemicals, including hydrochloric acid, pose a massive threat if they escape from the well and all wells leak eventually – 6% of gas wells leak immediately and 50% of all gas wells leak within 15 years. (1)

Since first writing to you at the start of the year, two UN climate reports have come out, which have made it clear that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are rising faster than ever and that the only way to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is to switch urgently to renewable energy, reduce energy demand, and wean ourselves off fossil fuels for good.

Fracking releases methane into the Earth’s atmosphere which is a much more potent greenhouse gas, between 20 and 25 times more so, than CO2. (2)

Exploiting new sources of fossil fuel such as shale gas will radically undermine our stated aim of reducing emissions in order to meet our international obligations. It undermines efforts to tackle the climate crisis – which in turn means our children will inherit a much more hazardous world.

Experts are clear that we need to leave around80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re to have any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. (3)

With this in mind, it makes no sense to start a new industry extracting shale oil and gas.

The exploration wells that we are seeing at the moment are just the start. Unconventional gas will require tens of thousands of wells over huge areas of the country. Production will require pipelines, compressor stations and waste disposal on a massive scale. The tiny exploration companies will be replaced by massive firms when they sell the information and licences they’ve gathered.

Fracking will accelerate climate change and pollute our environment. It will lead to yet more dependence on fossil fuel precisely when the overwhelming scientific and political consensus confirms that we need to move urgently in the opposite direction. The only safe and responsible thing to do with shale gas is to leave it in the ground. Fracking will not lower our fuel bills. It will not give us energy security and it will not create significant numbers of jobs.

Public support for fracking is at a low. Now is the time for you and your colleagues working on your energy policies and manifesto for the forthcoming election campaign to be bold and do the right thing. For inspiration look to Denmark. By 2020, the country aims to produce 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources and to make the switch to renewables completely by mid-century. They’re already at 43%. (4)

Meanwhile, the UK fracking industry themselves say it will take 5 years before they’ll even know if there’s the possibility of an industry.

Denmark has shown that industrialized countries are able to carry out real, genuine and rapid transition to renewable energy right here in Europe. If it’s “security of energy supply” you’re after, there’s the answer.

Yours faithfully,

Jon Crooks

(1)    Fracking: Frequently Asked Questions – Friends of the Earth – http://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/fracking-frequently-asked-questions-18022.pdf

(2)    Climate Change Connection – http://www.climatechangeconnection.org/emissions/CO2_equivalents.htm

(3)    80 Percent of the World’s Fossil Fuels Must Stay in the Ground to Avert Catastrophe – Christopher Hayes – The Nation –http://www.thenation.com/blog/179514/80-percent-worlds-fossil-fuels-must-stay-ground-avert-catastrophe#

(4)    Denmark leads the charge in renewable energy – DW – http://www.dw.de/denmark-leads-the-charge-in-renewable-energy/a-17603695

Fracking – letter to my MP dated 16 Jan 2014

Dear Mr Reynolds,

I am writing to you as one of your constituents living in Mossley and as a Labour voter in the last general election. I contacted you last night on Twitter in reference to an article published in The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/15/bp-predicts-greenhouse-emissions-rise-third

My tweet read: “I want to know what my MP @jreynoldsMP thinks of this as shadow minister for Climate Change”

In response you invited me to: “Please write or send an email to me if there is something you would like to raise”

 

As both my MP and Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change, your views on Fracking are of great interest to me.

 

As I’m sure you are aware, David Cameron and George Osborne have recently declared that the government is “going all out for shale” as he announced that councils & homeowners will be effectively bribed in order to shore up support for fracking despite concerns about the use of high-pressure water and chemicals and the effects on our countryside, communities and of course Climate Change.

 

It was disappointing to hear from Tom Greatrex, the shadow energy minister (and presumably your boss), who said: “Gas will remain an important part of our energy mix in the future, and if shale gas can replace our rapidly depleting North Sea reserves it could help improve our energy security. It is right that any communities that host nationally significant energy infrastructure are able to share in its rewards.

“But the government must get its priorities right. Only by fully addressing legitimate environmental and safety concerns about fracking with robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring will people have confidence that the exploration and possible extraction of shale gas is a safe and reliable source that can contribute to the UK’s energy mix.”

So, in short, as is the case on so many issues of late, Labour’s policy on Fracking mirrors that of the Tories, but with a bit of rhetoric thrown in to try and soften the impact.

 

My concern is that many of the arguments for fracking have been discredited, whilst the environmental concerns remain.

 

One argument for fracking is that it will bring down energy prices. However, Lord Browne, the former BP boss who is now chairman of Cuadrilla as well as a non-executive director inside the civil service, has said: “We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price.”

Meanwhile, analysts at the City firm Brewin Dolphin also poured scorn on Cameron and George Osborne for over-hyping the potential impact of shale in Britain. “We believe the shale industry is unlikely to produce commercial volumes of gas until the end of this decade and that it is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on gas prices.”

“This is due to two reasons; first, commercially available volumes are likely to be significantly lower in the UK than in the US, and second, if UK shale is successful, exploration companies could export the gas to achieve higher prices,” they argue.

 

Another argument is that it will create jobs. The Institute of Directors has predicted that the shale industry could create 74,000 direct and indirect jobs within 15 years, but the Civitas thinktank points to the mistakes made in the development of the UK’s offshore wind industry with some 90% of contracts for prestige projects such as the London Array – the world’s largest offshore wind farm, close to the Kent coastline – being placed abroad. It’s owned by a consortium without any British involvement.

The scope for a repeat exists with shale. There are 2,000 onshore land rigs with 500 trained shale teams working in the US, while there are only 77 rigs and 10 fracking crews in Europe. The North Sea oil industry is already suffering from soaring wages and other costs owing to skill shortages and it is not clear who would be on the frontline of any British shale revolution.

 

Environmentalists remain solidly opposed to extraction on the basis of safety. Test drilling by Cuadrilla produced the Blackpool earthquakes and there are still concerns about fracking chemicals leaking into water supplies.

Friends of the Earth says the UN environment programme has warned that “fracking may result in unavoidable environmental impacts even if [gas] is extracted properly”. Dave Timms, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth says: “We should not be encouraging the further extraction and burning of oil and gas when what we need is the rapid deployment of new low-carbon technologies”. He’s right.

Greenpeace climate campaigner Lawrence Carter says: “Total, a French company who can’t frack in their own country because the French government has stopped the French countryside being ripped up, have now turned their sights on the UK countryside, where the UK government seem happy to allow the industrialisation of our green and pleasant land. The UK government seem deaf to the risks fracking poses to our environment and local communities and are pushing ahead with selling off two-thirds of Britain for drilling without a public mandate.”

 

This brings me to the piece in The Guardian yesterday, which focuses on the really big issue of Climate Change. It starts by telling us that global greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by nearly a third in the next two decades, putting hopes of curtailing dangerous climate change beyond reach, and this is from a new report by BP!

 

It goes on to say that shale gas will account for a rising proportion of the growth in energy in the years to 2035, but its use will not cause a decline in greenhouse gases.

 

This pours cold water on proponents of shale gas who have argued that its use will cut emissions. Burning gas produces much less CO2 than burning coal, but the effect of a huge rise in shale gas exploration will not ameliorate the increases in emissions that scientists say will take the world to dangerous climate change.

 

Proponents of the fuel have argued that shale gas can counteract dependence on coal. But while shale gas use has increased dramatically, particularly in the US, global emissions have continued to rise as the coal that would otherwise have been used has been exported elsewhere.

Christof Ruehl, BP chief economist, said that fuel switching had little impact on overall emissions. Coal use globally had risen to record levels, even as shale gas had risen.

 

This news that such a move will not cut overall emissions takes away a key plank in the arguments put forward by David Cameron, George Osborne and the shale companies.

BP in its global energy outlook said gas would take a 27% share of global energy consumption by 2035, with a similar share for coal, oil, and an amalgamated low-carbon sector including nuclear, hydro, wind and sun.

BP predicts that global emissions will rise 29% by 2035. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that emissions must peak by 2020 to give the world a chance to avoid a further two degrees of warming, beyond which the effects of climate change becomecatastrophic and irreversible.

Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, said: “The case for shale gas is crumbling. Experts say it won’t lead to cheaper fuel bills, and now BP says it won’t cut carbon emissions either. Follow the PM’s logic and we’d be punching thousands of holes in our countryside only to further add to climate change and continue with sky-high bills.

Instead of going all out for shale, the prime minister should focus on the real answers to the energy challenges we face: energy efficiency and renewable power.”

 

Finally, as a politician, you  must consider the views of the public. A new opinion poll for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) found that 47% of people would be unhappy for a gas well site using fracking to open within 10 miles of their home, compared with just 14% who said they would be happy.

The biggest concerns for the people polled included fears of damage to the local environment, the associated noise and disruption, fears over the chemicals used and health risks, as well as fears that drinking water might be contaminated.

Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IME, said: “These poll results suggest that simply offering money to local councils and communities is not enough to convince the public about the benefits of fracking for gas.”

The Guardian carried out the first UK nationwide poll on shale last summer and found people split down the middle, 40% in favour of shale drilling in their area, 40% against, with 20% unsure. The IME poll suggests attitudes to shale are hardening rather than softening.

 

The Conservative leader of East Cheshire council recently ruled out shale gas exploration, an embarrassment for shale gas supporter George Osborne, whose constituency is in the area.

 

Now I would like to know the views of my MP and the Energy Minister Tom Greatrex. Are you going to stand up to Cameron and the shale companies and say no to Fracking?

 

Yours faithfully,

Jon Crooks