Lack of Environment

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

The frack-heads are dangerously deluded

with 12 comments

Yesterday, in the UK’s Observer newspaper, Andrew Rawnsley highlighted an important delusion currently infecting a large proportion of – the senior partner in the UK’s coalition government – the Conservative Party.

In his article, entitled ‘The fracking dream which is putting Britain’s future at risk’, Rawnsley proposes the name “frack-heads” for people seduced by the idea that hydraulic fracturing will be “a remarkable bonanza of cheap energy” – because “[b]elievers in shale gas have a tendency to rave about it as if they are using a mind-bending substance“.

In recent months, I have posted a number of items about hydraulic fracturing on this blog; many of them prompted by what Grist blogger Dave Robert has written about it; and by the films of Josh Fox (i.e. Gasland and The Sky is Pink).  Most recently, of course, Bill McKibben has reminded the World that we have five times more fossil fuels than it would be safe to burn and, burning all of them is therefore gambling the future habitability of this planet on making Carbon Capture and Storage work.  I remain convinced that we should be making more effort to decarbonise our power generation systems as soon as possible.

But what of Rawnsley’s article; what has he got against fracking?  Well, initially, it is not clear, because parts of his article read like some twisted April Fool’s Day joke; such as when he points out that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has:

“…paved the way for drilling by trailing tax breaks to incentivise the exploration of shale gas and announced a new regulatory outfit, the Office for Unconventional (Shale) Gas, dubbed Ofshag…

So, Rawnsley correctly boils-down the enthusiasm of the frack-heads as being the pursuit of perpetuating the delusion of cheap energy; and a determination to insist that there is such a thing as a free lunch.  However, sadly, on his way to explaining why he thinks fracking is risky, Rawnsley gets a bit confused:  He rightly observes that climate change deniers “are prominent among the frack-heads” but then spoils it all by asserting that fracking “seems to offer something to greens because shale gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal.” However, in all of what remains of Rawnsley’s article, he never once even comes close to pointing out the inherent danger of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels simply because we can.

So, as I said, what is it that Rawnsley thinks is risky?  Well, just in case you can’t be bothered to read his article, he basically re-states the position of the UK government’s advisors – that it probably can be done safely.  Despite this pragmatism, however, Rawnsley foresees a great deal of popular opposition to something that will, nevertheless, be far more intrinsically dangerous – and therefore unpopular – than wind turbines.  Rawnsley then makes the point that UK geology is very different from that in the USA; which may make shale gas even harder to extract here than it has there.  However, all this is just a pre-amble to Rawnsley’s penultimate paragraph, in which he almost pulls together a coherent and comprehensive argument (emphasis mine):

The risks of this “dash for gas” are multiple. It locks Britain into a continued reliance on an expensive, polluting fossil fuel. Money spent on gas diverts investment from renewables, which is especially bonkers when the green energy sector is one of the few parts of the British economy that is currently displaying good growth. It makes it less likely that we will meet our targets for reducing carbon emissions. Should shale gas truly turn out to be viable, there would be dividends. But if, which seems much more likely at the moment, the claims made for it prove to be false, then Britain is going to be even more exposed to future price shocks and blackmail by foreign suppliers. We are already hazardously dependent on imports from Russia and the Middle East. Much of our gas comes through the Straits of Hormuz from Qatari platforms just outside Iran’s territorial waters. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make me feel terribly secure. Nor do I sleep easier at night when I think about Vladimir Putin’s finger hovering over our national light switch.

I therefore agree with Rawnsley that this is “fracking crazy” –  I just think it is a shame he failed to mention Bill McKibben!

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12 Responses

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  1. As I have mentioned in previous posts the issues of fracking in the UK are a mixed bag, not least its viability and not excluding the UKs need for several decades of gas back-up in even the most perfect green future. But, that is detail in a much larger issue, namely cheap energy.

    Climate deniers just love to peddle the notion of cheap and abundant energy- fracking or thorium or even abiotic oil [lol]- and it is a kind of nostalgia. I don’t think it is particularly unusual for those in denial to hark back to that golden age. The danger is when governments try to sell it, it is bad enough if some market snake oil salesman wants your investment [e-cat anyone] but when those who are supposed to lead are deluded we are f*cked.

    Sorry Martin but I can’t think of another word. The party is over – sure they may be five more bottles of vodka somewhere in the house but dawn is coming and we are only putting off a very big hangover. Everything is based on cheap abundant energy- our economy, our growth, our work our welfare state- your pension -my dinner. And it all needs to rethought. Selling a dream that is never going to work out is just dumb.

    That, I think is the real issue.

    julesbollocks

    10 December 2012 at 00:44

    • Thanks Jules. Your bluntness is understandable and, sadly, I share your pessimism.

      For the benefit of new readers, I should perhaps explain that my position on carbon capture and storage (CCS) has evolved and become somewhat nuanced in the last few months. It all came to a head in September:
      More fracking madness (10 September 2012)
      Making sense of madness (12 September 2012)
      Embracing the madness (14 September 2012)
      I used to be totally against CCS – seeing it as fossil fuel lobby propaganda to justify the continuance of hydrocarbon exploration. This it may well be but, I think it is also now our only hope of avoiding an environmental catastrophe – because we seem to be experiencing a significant lack of willpower and are thus failing to kick our filthy fossil fuel habit.

      I was kind of expecting a comment from Schalk Cloete (and may still get it) because about the only plausible excuse for prioritising the pursuit of fracking over the pursuit of renewable energy (as the UK government’s new Energy Bill does) is the argument that renewable energy alone cannot meet our future energy demands; because it is expensive, inefficient and will take up too much space. All I can say to this is that Dr Amory Lovins, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, does not agree. He has spent decades working on this problem and concluded that, although it may take 40 years to achieve it, a renewables-only future is not only possible – it is essential:

      http://www.rmi.org/reinventingfire

      Martin Lack

      10 December 2012 at 12:45

    • I should have also said that I completely agree with your assertion that the problem is our dependence upon cheap energy [as, indeed, I made clear in my Entropy – an anauthorised biography (7 September 2012)].

      Martin Lack

      10 December 2012 at 12:56

  2. So much to say, so little time. Let me just point out this: USA fracking depends upon the existence there of vast throw-away states (my expression). The #1 practical problem with fracking is that, even if the toxic fluids left underground stay underground (not clear!), plenty are left on the surface to start with. Actually in several countries, it’s impossible to frack, because of the lack of water (!)

    Other points: the Qatar gas is processed in JUST one super giant, hyper protected factory, miles long. However, one supersonic cruise missile would shut it down.

    Although I do agree with Jules (& Martin) about the necessity of having a much more efficient economy, that is ABSOLUTELY NOT the route presently chosen by the USA. Quite the opposite. The USA plans to export gas, oil, and coal to China…

    Of these things world wars are made.

    In the greater scheme of things, any outcome involving peace, long term, will have to depend upon not only renewables, but also new forms of nuclear related energies (e.g. Thorium).

    As it is worldwide anti-corruption day, I wrote an article on Susan Rice, somebody as much for massive pollution as you will ever find. Obama is trying to make her the third personage of the USA in rank, just behind VP Biden.

    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/2012/12/10/no-rice-no-lice-no-dice/

    PA

    Patrice Ayme

    10 December 2012 at 18:25

    • Ah, I get it now, Patrice: You think the USA is embarking on a race – between it, Canada and Australia – to see who can sell the most finite resources to countries that still have money to spend? Unfortunately – for USA and Canada – this policy (of mistaking Nature’s capital for a source of income – E.F.Schumacher) has already proven erroneous. Therefore, albeit two years later than the rest of the developed World, Australia has now discovered that selling itself to the highest bidder just makes its economy look like that of Angola or Azerbaijan. In other words, this is not a race to become the next superpower; it is a race to the bottom. It is the last throw of the dice in what Schalk Cloete has identified as the Ponzi Scheme of globalised Capitalism, which will collapse when the less developed economies run out of money (as China now has done).
      In search of the Lucky Country (7 June 2012)

      Martin Lack

      13 December 2012 at 17:34

      • Dear Martin: You get it.

        With a caveat: I disagree somewhat about the traditional mumbo-jumbo on “capitalism”, “collapse”, etc. Marx had a restricted understanding of “Das Kapital”, and the collapse has been stridently predicted since. As a physical scientist, I think in term of energy. Fracking makes geopolitical sense, if one is cynical enough (you said as much yourself a few months ago). It is precisely because it makes sense, that it is so dangerous.

        This being said, fracking, well done, could be used to KILL COAL, so maybe ecologists should use it that way. The swiss are proceeding full blast, and fracking there could start in 5 years. it’s not just Britain.

        Nature’s capital has always been a source of income, and there is a race between exhausting it, and advanced tech.
        PA

        Patrice Ayme

        15 December 2012 at 05:54

        • Thank Patrice. I agree that Marx failed to acknowledge the reality of Limits to Growth (just as much as all those he described as being obsessed with making money did). As a physical scientist, I too think in terms of energy. I am not sure when I said fracking makes geopolitical sense but, I guess that, somewhere along the way, I acknowledged the realities that make politicians like George Osborne ignore the advice of experts within the Environment Agency and the Committee on Climate Change.

          Fracking may well kill coal; the hysteria surrounding it (or global debt) has certainly now caused a slow-down in the mining boom in Australia. However, as numerous commentators have observed, fracking may have a small physical footprint on the Earth’s surface but, when you factor-in all the tanker journeys to convey the product to market, it does not have a low carbon footprint.

          If nature’s capital “has always been a source of income” then, you could argue, we humans have been on an unsustainable resource depletion path from the day we started deforestation 7000 years ago. Either way, however, our problem today is that a 50% growth in the human population (from 7 to 10.5 billion) in the next 50 years has very little chance of being sustainable – unless we all stop eating meat and build an awful lot of solar-powered water desalination plants.

          Martin Lack

          15 December 2012 at 11:01

  3. Just come across this at the BBC:

    Gas fracking: Ministers approve shale gas extraction to which I have responded with this:

    All the signs from North America show that this process has many dangers not only an increase in seismic activity.

    There is a great danger of drinking water sources being contaminated by process chemicals (What’s in these, the operators are reluctant to be above board here?) and leaking gases.

    It has been discovered in the US that the methane fraction in the air above the area of operations are elevated, posing a great risk of adding further to the total greenhouse gas (GHG) imbalance.

    Once many factors of operation are internalised as cost then the economic case collapses.

    This is a most unfortunate decision by a PM and Chancellor who are either woefully ignorant of the truth or don’t care about same for short term game.

    I was expecting this with the scare stories about power shortages being promoted through the media. If true, and it probably is in part, then shale gas is not a viable option especially if the UK’s signed up to targets with respect to GHG outputs are to be met.

    Others may wish to add their own perspective in the comments there.

    Lionel A

    13 December 2012 at 16:29

    • Thanks Lionel.

      Thanks to Twitter, I was alerted to an online debate sparked by Mark Lynas and David Santillo (Greenpeace) on the Guardian website today. To which I trotted out my now familiar line:

      When will environmentalists stop arguing about whether fracking is inherently dangerous (because of its immediate and localised impacts when poorly engineered and/or executed)… and start focusing on the fact that it is intrinsicly dangerous (because we need to stop finding evermore esoteric and unconventional fossil fuel sources to exploit)…?

      However, I think my favourite comment is this one by someone called leedsjon:

      …there are also significant economic reasons why this strategy should be abandoned once and for all – far from being any kind of ‘cheap’ energy, shale gas would increase our energy bills by up to £600 over the next 10 years, compared to an increase of £100 if energy was switched to renewables! So, despite the ill informed rhetoric of the Chancellor George Osbourne, this is actually going to be the most expensive option to be considered… The argument that shale gas is low carbon originates from the claim that, compared directly, it emits lower emissions than coal. Yet this comparison does not take into account the vastly increased carbon footprint generated by the process of transporting extracted gas to gas fired power stations (which may mean convoys of up to 300 heavy goods lorries per day travelling through the areas where the shale gas mines are located)…

      Martin Lack

      13 December 2012 at 17:16

  4. I would burn my copies of those Lynas books if it were not for the carbon locked up in them.

    And then there is of course the Alberta tar sands imbroglio.

    Lionel A

    13 December 2012 at 17:47

  5. […] discussed with a commenter on this blog (Lionel) yesterday, I decided to get involved; and to try and contact Dr Santillo personally, via […]

  6. […] 2012/12/10: LoE: The frack-heads are dangerously deluded […]


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