Lack of Environment

A blog on the politics and psychology underlying the denial of all our environmental problems

More fracking madness

with 7 comments

Back in June, I published a post entitled Are we fracking mad?, in which I lamented the sheer folly of pursing unconventional fossil fuels (and hydraulic fracturing to release oil shale gas in particular) when we know that doing so will aggravate the damage we have already done to our climate.  As was implied by something I wrote much more recently, we may climb mountains just because they are there, but is it really sensible to apply the same strategy to burning fossil fuels?

Amongst all the comments appended to my earlier post, there was one by JPGreenword, which highlighted an item on the Think Progress (TP) website, describing fracking as a “bridge to nowhere”. This TP item highlighted a report by the International Energy Agency, entitled ‘Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas’, which concluded that fracking may be safe, despite the fact that it also acknowledged that pursuing it will make it much harder for us to avoid significant warming of the Earth’s climate.  That is to say, the point I keep making:  Now we know we are in a hole it is time to stop digging!  Unfortunately, this message was lost on most casual readers (including me), because the message does not appear until page 91.  Therefore, most headlines about the report focussed on the IEA’s conclusion that fracking was “safe”.  As Joe Romm says (on TP),  “That’s true only if a ruined climate, widespread Dust-Bowlification, an acidified ocean, and rapidly rising sea levels is your idea of ‘safe.’”

It was some time later that I heard about David Robert’s post on the Grist website, where he likened our current obsession with fracking as a panacea for our energy shortages to “a form of collective hypnosis” (Michael Liebreich).  It was because of this, and many other similar things I had read in the blogosphere, that I eventually came to write an email (last month) to Professor Robert Mair at the Royal Society, which I believe is self-explanatory:


Dear Professor Mair,

Re: Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering Report into Shale Gas Extraction in the UK

I note with interest your comment, as reported in the Geological Society’s monthly Geoscientist magazine this month (p7):
…this review is not an exhaustive analysis… and we have highlighted a number of issues that we believe merit further consideration, including the climate risks associated with the extraction and subsequent use of shale gas… (my emphasis)

In previous correspondence with the GSL and the BGS, both organisations have referred me to your Review (which I now find specifically does not address the issue of climate change); and I am therefore left wondering who is going to do so?

Professor Peter Styles has also had a letter published in this month’s issue of Geoscientist and I believe my response will be published in next month’s issue.  However, both are already online on the Letters page of the GSL website.  In essence, Professor Styles makes the point that we probably need shale gas in order to meet projected demands for energy.  My response to this was and is that anyone who thinks we need shale gas is asking the wrong question; and/or planning to allow humans to burn too much fossil fuel.

What need is there for more research? The Royal Society accepts (as does the GSL and the BGS) that climate change is happening; and that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause.  That being the case, I believe there is an over-riding moral imperative to explicitly state that we cannot afford to pursue unconventional fossil fuels because:
1. it is cumulative CO2 emissions that matter; and
2. the Earth contains five times more fossil fuel than it would be safe to burn; and
3. any further delay in decarbonising our energy generation systems will be a false economy.

That being the case, not stating this point to the Government appears to be inviting our politicians to gamble the future habitability of planet Earth on making carbon capture and storage (CCS) work.  Furthermore, even if CCS will be necessary to treat the symptoms (but not the cause) of the problem, would you not agree that it should not be relied upon as an excuse for perpetuating the status quo?

I hope that I may look forward to receiving a response to these questions from you and that, in so doing, you will not prohibit me from reproducing such a response on my blog (as I consider it to be an important issue of potential interest to the general public).  However, I should wish to reassure you that I will respect any request made for prohibition or limitation of publication (and trust that this alone will not deter you from making a substantive and constructive response).

Yours very sincerely,


As it turned out, I think Professor Mair was on holiday, but he did eventually reply; stressing three points (emphasis mine):
1. Our review was undertaken objectively and was neither pro or anti fracking. As stated in our report, our remit was to consider the technical aspects of the risks associated with fracking and whether health, safety and environmental risks could be managed effectively in the UK should shale gas extraction go ahead.
2. The scope of our remit was limited (mainly due to the timescale for the review).  We were aware that the climate risks associated with fracking fell outside our remit.  Nonetheless, we consider them to be very important, and so our report highlighted that further work is needed to address uncertainties surrounding the potential of methane leakage during shale gas extraction.  This issue was also clearly raised when we discussed the report with Government ministers and civil servants.
3. Our report makes it clear that it has not attempted to determine whether shale gas should go ahead.  This remains the responsibility of Government.  We also made it clear that decision-making must consider all the risks, including the climate risks associated with both the extraction and use of shale gas.

As I said in my response to Professor Mair, thanking him for taking the time to reply to me, I think we must therefore “hope that the government will not just do what is easy and politically convenient…”  As I wrote on my blog last Friday, this is because:

The post-carbon era is coming; and we cannot stop it:  The only question that remains is are we going to embrace that future; or cling to the past?  One thing is for certain; both choices have consequences:  If we plan for a sustainable future then we have a chance of making an organised transition to it.  However, if we do not plan for it, it will still arrive; and it is unlikely to be pleasant.

It was around the same time that I wrote to Schalk Cloete (oneinabllion blog), having realised that he is involved in carbon capture and storage (CCS) research, to ask him what he made of my email to Professor Mair.  His response was typically insightful and, I believe, is worthy of much wider consideration; and I have therefore sought and obtained his permission to publish it here.  However, so as not to detract from all of the above, and to ensure Schalk’s thoughts get the attention they deserve, I will publish them separately, in my next post.

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Written by Martin Lack

10 September 2012 at 00:02

7 Responses

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  1. Politics is about machiavelism. Obama overdid it, and got snafued. However, right now, gas, that means, fracking, is wasting coal in the USA. I don’t think coal will recover. Should not the enemy of my greater enemy, be less of an enemy?
    Also fracking in empty USA is a different proposal from fracking in crowded Europe.

    Patrice Ayme

    10 September 2012 at 18:57

  2. [...] promised on Monday, when I published my exchange of emails with the Royal Society’s Professor Mair, I now also publish the thoughts of Schalk Cloete’s (oneinabillion blog) regarding the fossil [...]

  3. [...] Monday, under the title ‘More fracking madness’, I published a recent exchange of emails I sent to and received from Professor Robert Mair (who [...]

  4. [...] 2012/09/09: LoE: More fracking madness [...]

  5. [...] I made clear on my blog last week, having benefited from an exchange of emails with Professor Robert Mair (on fracking) and with Dr Bryan Lovell (on CCS), I remain convinced that pursuing fracking as a [...]

  6. […] Mair (Cambridge/Royal Society).  As a result of these exchanges – summarised or linked to here on my blog – I would agree with Peter that we probably need shale gas.  However, I […]

  7. […] Mair (Cambridge/Royal Society).  As a result of these exchanges – summarised or linked to here on my blog – I would agree with Peter that we probably need shale gas.  However, I believe […]

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