Lack of Environment

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

Are we fracking mad?

with 16 comments

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With my thanks to Paul Handover at Learning from Dogs for alerting me to the fact, I have been saddened – but not surprised – to read about the tone and content of the latest five-yearly Global Environmental Outlook report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As Richard Black reports on the BBC’s website, this highlights the fact that significant progress has only been achieved on 4 out of 90 previously-agreed environmental goals; and that humanity’s current trajectory is a very long way away from being sustainable.

However, in addition to being unsustainable, it is, as Paul himself put it yesterday, “insane”: We appear to be surrounded by political leaders who are in denial about being in denial of the finite capacity of the Earth to provide us with what we need; and to recycle the waste we produce. When confronted with a reality such as this, rather than put all their energy into building a sustainable solution; they continue to throw good money after bad and prop-up the fossil fuel industry with massive subsidies. If you have not already done so, please register your protest against this via Bill McKibbin’s online petition here.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) may well eventually prove feasible – and our continuing existence as a species (if not the continuing habitability of Earth as a whole) may come to depend on us making it feasible but – CCS should not be used (as it is being used) as an excuse to make something that is insane seem sensible… Now that we know the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of the problem, we should find ways to replace their use wherever we can: We may be a long way from finding alternatives for many things we derive from fossil fuels (such as plastics); but we already have alternative ways to generate heat, light, and electricity. Therefore, where the use of fossil fuels can be readily substituted, this needs to happen as soon as possible. The list of organisations warning that delay will be unimaginably costly – and possibly terminal – grows longer all the time; a list to which we can now add UNEP.

Burning fossil fuels just because they are there is insane
For a long time, I have told anyone that would listen that we should leave unconventional hydrocarbons in the ground because of the extremely high probability that James Hansen is right; if we burn them all the runaway greenhouse effect is a “dead certainty” (i.e. on page 236 of Storms of My Grandchildren). However, thanks to the persistence of my many friends in the blogosphere, I have now also woken up to the reality that unconventional fossil fuel extraction – and hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) in particular – is having significant immediate adverse environmental impacts. Pendantry has described this as humanity “fouling its own nest”; but I think my own description of it as “defecating in our own pig pen” conveys a more appropriate image.

In the USA, fracking has recently been prohibited in the State of Vermont and it must be hoped that other States will now do the same. The Vermont legislature took this action as a result of reports confirming the link between fracking and minor earthquakes; and because of high profile campaigns mounted by those communities already being adversely impacted by fracking. However, the latter should not be confused with NIMBYism. This is because opposition to fracking is a response to real environmental problems afflicting real people as a result of real stupidity on an industrial scale.

When hydrocarbon exploration turns kitchen [taps/faucets] into flame throwers; kills fish in lakes and rivers; and renders water wells unusable, I think it is time for Plan B.

Must we turn the entire planet into a pollution incident in order to extract a non-renewable fuel source? Why don’t we replace our growing dependence upon this vanishing resource with the sustainable development of all forms of renewable energy? If it were not for the vested interests that prioritise the maintenance of the status quo over the interests of life on Earth, our insane behaviour would surely have been changed a long time ago? Sadly, vested interests are everywhere; they are like an invasive species that has infested the very fabric of society – making it very difficult for an alternative paradigm to emerge. Unfortunately, unless it does, I am fairly certain civilisation as we know it will be consigned to history. Civilisations have come and gone before; and the main reason history repeats itself is because no-one is listening. As George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it” …Must History and Santayana be proved right once more?

Business as Usual is not sustainable
Since realising that, in addition to being insane from a sustainability perspective, fracking is having very significant adverse environmental effects; I have been trying to establish what the current position of the Geological Society of London (GSL) is on the issue. Last year, the GSL published an ambivalent statement on the subject; urging a precautionary approach but ignoring the sustainability issue. Much more recently, the GSL has published a position statement on hydrocarbon exploration in the Arctic that, although re-iterating the previously-published recognition of the threat posed by anthropogenic climate disruption, relies entirely on the future efficacy of CCS to justify the World’s current laissez-faire strategy of burning all the Earths fossil fuels. Thus, I do not need to wait for the GSL to reply to my requests for an explanation, their position is very clear: CCS is a valid excuse to trash the planet; and the short-term interest of those employed in the hydrocarbon industry trumps those of the global ecosystem that sustains all life on Earth.

As if to add insult to injury, the independent review the UK Government commissioned last year recently concluded, on the basis of submissions from the GSL and many others, that fracking should be allowed to proceed. Furthermore, although it has gone through the motions of public consultation, it seems highly unlikely that government will go against expert advice. Therefore despite relying entirely of the future efficacy of CCS; despite all the mounting evidence of immediate environmental hazards; and despite the complete insanity of burning all the Earth’s fossil fuels rather than investing in renewable energy… the UK seems set to just that. Meanwhile, in the USA, the International Energy Agency, which last year issued a very sensible statement warning of the dangers of failing to de-carbonise our energy production systems, has now completely contradicted itself by appearing to be in favour of continuing with fracking

Truly, I think the world has gone fracking mad
We are in a massive hole but we are going to carry on digging regardless. Forget Digging for Victory; I think we are more likely to be digging our own grave.

16 Responses

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  1. You’ve got some gallows humor going here, Martin! However, I agree, there is an element of total insanity to the way human civilization is digging its own grave now. I am always amazed when I teach The Communist Manifesto (which I do practically every year in our required General Education Seminar), how prescient Marx was about this–he said that capitalism will dig its own grave, but he imagined that the working class would unite to form a better society. Of course, he could not have understood the finite carrying capacity of our planet in those days. We know better now, and yet the capitalists are still at it, and dragging the entire planet down with them.

    The question is, what do we do with our knowledge? Get fracking drunk and party on the way down? Or continue to try, soberly and firmly, to wake people up in time? Sometimes I have to admit the first option seems appealing…especially when I’m feeling frustrated about our activist efforts ever amounting to real change.

    Tomorrow I am finally going to have a chance to hear Bill McKibben live, and I hope he is as inspiring in person as he is in writing, because I need a good push now, to get back on my horse and keep fighting the good fight…..

    Thanks for keeping on keeping on….

    Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

    8 June 2012 at 02:34

    • Thanks Jennifer. I am sure Bill will be inspirational; he is certainly very passionate. I very much envy you in your position of being privileged to be able to educate others (and be paid for doing so). I think I may have to try once more to break into that vocation.

      I myself learnt a great deal last year from a great many people, none more so than my tutor for a Green Political Theory module – Professor Andrew N. H. Dobson. Have you heard of him? I have met many people who are passionate about their subject; but I have met very few who are as effective at communicating ideas – often by saying very little – as is Andrew Dobson. He is always keen to allow others to speak; and gently guides you towards the truth – yet makes you feel you worked it out yourself. This is what all teachers should be like. If you have not heard of him, my Amazon review of his book (co-authored with Robyn Eckersley), Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge (2006), will give you a good idea.

      With regard to Karl Marx, I learnt a great deal last year doing the research for one of my many written assignments – a 5000 word essay on the subject “Is ecologism a distinct new ideology?”. For example:
      According to Jon Elster, it was Karl Marx that coined the term ‘money fetishism’ to describe the belief that money (and/or precious metals) have intrinsic (use) value rather than just instrumental (exchange) value, which Marx felt was as misguided as the religious practice of endowing inanimate objects with supernatural powers (Elster 1986: 56-7). However, the terms use value and exchange value were first put forward by Aristotle (384-322 BC) who, according to Daly, also recognised the danger of focusing on the latter (i.e. whereby the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself). Therefore, Daly suggests that the paperless economy (where no useable commodities actually change hands) is the ultimate destiny for money fetishism (Daly 1992: 186).
      See my Can modernisation be ecological – part 2 (25 September 2011) for references.

      However, whereas Karl Marx saw capitalism as the problem, the ideology that he gave his name to is just as guilty of Daly’s “growthmania”. For example, whereas Jack Goody accepts that capitalism has been “…connected with the growth of rationality and of secularisation; more recently with urbanisation and industrialisation”, he also notes that for many Marxist regimes ‘modern’ just meant industrialisation without capitalism. [Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate (2004), page 6].

      Martin Lack

      8 June 2012 at 09:14

      • Sounds like you’ve been doing some interesting reading here, Martin! Yes, Marxism is not the answer, especially not when we’re looking at the world through an ecological lens. Witness China!

        I am not sure higher ed is the answer either–the field is in such bad shape. Maybe you should focus first on trying to write a brilliant book, which will become your calling card at the Ivory Tower.

        As for your Professor Dobson, his pedagogical method sounds something like mine–lead by indirection, and let the students find their way to realizations for which the course materials and our class discussions have laid the groundwork. Much better than lecturing and posturing as though one had privileged access to the gospel truth, and then asking students to regurgitate it all on the final exam! Not my style at all.

        Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

        8 June 2012 at 12:10

        • That is all good to hear. I have been accused of being “preachy” (but only by those who have previously decided that I am wrong)! I have also established what I must do in order to get a non-fiction book published (i.e. write a book proposal very much like one for a piece of research), but this will take time to put together.

          As for China, in view of various unbelievably long and incoherent comments made by someone called jdouglashuahin on Climate Denial Crock of the Week (this being just the tip of a very large iceberg), I think I may devote the whole of next week to the subject of China.

          Martin Lack

          8 June 2012 at 14:13

    • “I agree, there is an element of total insanity to the way human civilization is digging its own grave now.”

      I wonder: is it insanity, ignorance, denial, or a combination of all of the above?

      By the way, despite the fact that I do not know who you are, I am incredibly jealous that you are going to hear Mr. McKibben live. : )
      I hope you get some inspiration and motivation from his talk.


      10 June 2012 at 00:39

  2. Hello Martin. I stumbled on this when searching on, “fracking is insane.” Yes, I was a little more than depressed and cynical today. Thank you for taking the time to put this together and to share your carefully formed ideas. Like you, I can’t get over the denial. Fracking in particular – pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the ground has no environmental impact? What kind of brain follows this line of thinking? It is truly insane.

    I’m thinking the root cause of this insanity is greed. I am convinced the human capacity for greed can never be eliminated let alone controlled, so is there a way to channel this same gold rush mentality toward non-carbon forms of energy production? I think there is, but it seems some form of government backing is needed to get it kick started (leadership).

    While I can be quite cynical I can almost as easily be too optimistic (bi-polar eco-syndrome?). Imagine a solar or other non-carbon energy boom that leads to all types of people, young and old, attending everything from community college to graduate school in order to fulfill a never ending demand for their new skills and knowledge. Imagine an economy kicking back into gear with almost everyone benefitting from the retrofitting of homes, businesses, towns and cities…

    Then again, maybe I am insane too.

    Peter Hawser

    8 June 2012 at 12:39

    • You are very kind, Peter. But please do not forget that, despite my background in geology and hydrogeology, it has taken the persistence of other non-geological bloggers to make me wake up to what is going on here.

      I think you are absolutely right about greed; but I would also add-in arrogance (that we can treat the environment with contempt and not be adversely affected) and stubbornness (in refusing to change course when we should).

      The Green Economy is ripe for investment and, once we can resolve the minor difficulty of spending money no-one has anymore, it seems more likely than anything else is to save us from biosystem collapse and unintended ecocide. I just hope that the arrogance and stubbornness I mentioned will not prevent us from finally doing the right thing.

      I am delighted at the happy coincidence of your searching and my posting; and thanks again for taking the time to comment.

      Martin Lack

      8 June 2012 at 14:31

  3. While my heart agrees with the stance you have taken in your Post, my head acknowledges the recent article in The Economist with regard to fracking. That article opens thus,

    “THE story of America’s shale-gas revolution offers hope in hard times. The ground was laid in the late 1990s, when a now-fabled Texan oilman, George Mitchell, developed an affordable way to extract natural gas locked up in shale rock and other geological formations. It involves blasting them with water, sand and chemicals—a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. America’s shale-gas industry has since drilled 20,000 wells, created hundreds of thousands of jobs, directly and indirectly, and provided lots of cheap gas. This is a huge advantage to American industry and a relief to those who fret about American energy security.”

    But the thrust of the argument is later,

    “But the risks from shale gas can be managed. Properly concreted well-shafts do not leak; regurgitants can be collected and made safe; preventing gas venting and flaring would limit methane emissions to acceptable levels; and the risk of tremors, which commonly occur as a result of conventional oil-and-gas activities, can be contained by careful monitoring. The IEA estimates that such measures would add 7% to the cost of the average shale-gas well. That is a small price to pay for environmental protection and the health of a promising industry.

    For as well as posing environmental risks, a gas boom would bring an important environmental benefit. Burning gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal; so where gas substitutes for coal, emissions will fall. America’s emissions have fallen by 450m tonnes in the past five years, more than any other country’s. Ironically, given its far greater effort to tackle climate change, the European Union has seen its emissions rise, partly because of an increase in coal-fired power generation in response to Europe’s high gas price.

    Cleaner, but not clean enough

    By itself, switching to gas will not reduce emissions to anything like the levels required to avoid a high risk of serious climate change. This will take much crunchier policies to boost renewable-energy sources and other clean technologies—starting with a strong price on carbon emissions, through a market-based mechanism or, preferably, a carbon tax. Governments are understandably unwilling to take these steps in straitened times. Yet they should plan to do so; and in the coming years cheap gas could help free cash for more investment in low-carbon technologies. Otherwise the bonanza would be squandered.”

    These points shouldn’t be ignored. If the world stopped consuming coal tomorrow but continued with fracking then everyone concerned with the fate of the biosphere would cheer from the roof-tops.

    Paul Handover

    8 June 2012 at 16:49

    • Thanks for fleshing-out what the article in The Economist says, Paul. I am conscious that I may be guilty of having simplified its message (in order to limit the length of my original post).

      Just as I suspect that CCS can be made reasonably safe, so I suspect that the technological failings that have given rise to the problems recounted in the video can be minimised; but they will never be eliminated. Furthermore, given that neither of us would want to second-guess James Hansen on the likelihood that burning all the Earth’s unconventional fossil fuels (instead of leaving them in the ground) will induce a runaway greenhouse effect, I find it hard to understand how you can be in favour of fracking.

      Hansen’s argument reduces to this:
      — Many members of OPEC cannot be expected to stop exploiting fossil fuels because their economies are so heavily dependent on the export revenue [although Saudi Arabia is already investing in solar because its oil is running out but – since they are trying to keep it quiet – please don’t tell them I told you :-)].
      — Many poorer countries with lots of coal cannot be expected to make the investment in anything other than low-tech non-renewable energy solutions; so we must assume that they will burn all their coal.

      Therefore, the moral responsibility to make wise choices falls on those most able to make them: We should stop shuffling the deck of fossil fuel cards altogether. We should, in short, stop mining coal, oil and gas (for energy generation purposes at least). The alternatives exist; and the only reason this is not happening (along with maximising fuel efficiency and minimising consumption), is that fossil fuel exploitation is being so heavily subsidised. So, I have to ask, have you signed the petition yet?

      Martin Lack

      8 June 2012 at 17:23

      • To answer your last question first, ‘Yes’.

        I’m not arguing against working as hard as we can to enable mankind to use the planet’s resources in a renewable and sustainable fashion.

        But that is not something that is going to happen overnight, or even in the next couple of decades, even given international support by the majority of governments. That’s not being pessimistic, it’s just being realistic.

        So if a massive switch to gas for as many energy purposes as possible would speed up the demise of coal then, surely, that’s a legitimate plan to examine. If the world was to stop using coal in the next 5 years, that would be an incredibly positive outcome, which could be followed by a switch away from gas in the next 5 years, hopefully with a switch away from oil products over the same time-frame.

        You finished your Post by writing, “I think we are more likely to be digging our own grave.” So, go on, say what you think would be a _realistic_ alternative that acknowledges where mankind has got itself.

        As Aristotle is rumoured to have written, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.” So what avenues offer us hope?

        Paul Handover

        8 June 2012 at 23:24

        • Thanks Paul. I did not really doubt that you would have signed the petition but, it is the subsidies paid to fossil fuel companies that are the problem. Without this distortion of the market (and a deliberate campaign to mislead the public and make them accept ‘business as usual’) renewable energy would be seen by everybody as the solution we should pursue. Furthermore, if everybody was to also minimise their energy consumption and/or choose micro-generation etc., we may not have to industrialise huge tracts of non-agricultural land to achieve it. The UK’s DECC website has a Pathways 2050 toolkit that you can play with to prove to yourself that fossil-free energy generation is already possible; the only thing missing is the political will (and freedom from lobbying by special interests) to make it a reality.

          Here in the UK, most of our coal is now inaccessible (i.e. you cannot de-water and re-enter an underground coal mine once it has flooded), and I see no sign of anyone deciding to leave shallow/recoverable coal in the ground; even less so in the USA (where underground coal mining remains feasible too). Therefore, do you really think that oil shale gas (and even worse tar sands) will be pursued instead of coal? Despite what The Economist says, I see no evidence of a switch to gas; other than that forced upon us by the reality of diminishing reserves of coal.

          So then, all I can see is a determination to burn all the Earth’s fossil fuels just because they are there; which is not a story that can have a happy ending. Therefore, if this is going to be the strategy that humanity sticks with (as a result of inertia and propaganda), then Patrice Ayme is right, we should stop talking about ‘climate change’ and start talking abut ‘biosphere collapse’

          Martin Lack

          9 June 2012 at 11:10

    • I respectfully disagree with your final paragraph. A major problem with fracking that isn’t making enough news is the leaking of methane at various stages in the life cycle of natural gas. When taking these leaks into consideration, the overall climate impact of natural gas is similar to that of coal.

      As the fine folks at Climate Progress put it, natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. You may want to read a post on Climate Progress titled “International Energy Agency Finds ‘Safe’ Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate”. Here is the link:


      10 June 2012 at 00:46

      • In following up the link provided by JPG above, I have to admit to being wrong in my earlier comment with regard to natural gas being a source of hope that we will more quickly rid ourselves of coal usage. That link refers to the ‘Golden Rules’ as in:

        “The International Energy Agency has a new report out, Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas. Unfortunately, the IEA buried the lede — the Golden Age of Gas scenario destroys a livable climate — so the coverage of the report was off target.”

        and then goes on to say,

        The Golden Rules Case puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target. This finding reinforces a central conclusion from the WEO special report on a Golden Age of Gas (IEA, 2011b), that, while a greater role for natural gas in the global energy mix does bring environmental benefits where it substitutes for other fossil fuels, natural gas cannot on its own provide the answer to the challenge of climate change.

        The thought that the powers to be are contemplating ‘stabilising’ CO2 at 650 ppm is truly frightening. Something I shall be writing about on Learning from Dogs over the coming days.

        In conclusion, Martin, a great post from you, and thank you.

        Paul Handover

        10 June 2012 at 16:19

      • I am completely indebted to JP for providing the information to back me up (i.e. from the Think Progress website). I was sure The Economist must be wrong but could not prove it – feel free to write in and tell them. Update: I have submitted my own comment (thanks again JP).

        Martin Lack

        11 June 2012 at 08:36

  4. […] methane you know).  Over on Lack of Environment Martin Lack recently published a piece on Fracking.  Here’s an extract, Burning fossil fuels just because they are there is insane For a long […]

  5. […] 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 […]

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