The frack-heads are dangerously deluded
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!