Lack of Environment

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

Nick Reeves says we’re all ‘Fracking Mad’

with 27 comments

The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone!

I know this has been said many times.  Most recently it has been said by one of my favourite environmental commentators/campaigners, Executive Director of CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management), Nick Reeves OBE.  If any new readers are not familiar with him, they may wish to start by typing his name into the Search this Blog box (in the right-hand column) and see what happens…

CIWEM publishes a monthly magazine, to which Reeves nearly always contributes an article.  Last week, my copy of the May 2013 issue arrived early. It includes an article by Reeves entitled, ehem, “A bonkers energy solution”.  However, the online version is indeed entitled “Fracking Mad.  Reeves begins with a seemingly bizarre discussion of the failings of the UK’s education system.  However, it soon becomes clear that he considers this to be at least partly to blame for the fact that the general public are willing to accept a “bonkers energy solution” such as hydraulic fracturing. However, it is UK government policy that is “bonkers” (the general public just don’t seem to realise it):

Last December, the energy and climate change secretary, Ed Davey, gave the go-ahead for fracking (the controversial technology for releasing underground shale gas) as part of a plan for maximising the use of (so called) low-cost fuel. In so doing the government has thumbed its nose at legally binding carbon emissions targets and cuffed the country to a fossil-fuel future. Worse still, its commitment to fracking will undermine investment of billions of pounds in renewables, geothermal and energy efficiency. We now know that the ‘greenest government ever’ tag was shameless and that ministers are back-sliding on their commitment to a low-carbon and green economy.

Reeves goes on to recount the recent history of fracking in the UK and mentions all the (probably spurious) safety concerns.  Like me, he focusses on the fact that we probably cannot afford to pursue fracking because of the long-term consequences doing so will have; and that we simply must find a way to do without it.  However, he is more blunt than I have been, and criticises the reviews the Government commissioned for not making this point:

The scientists appear to have ignored the fact that no amount of control and regulation can stop shale gas from being a fossil fuel or from releasing carbon dioxide.

This is an important point well made.  However, in defence of the scientists (and engineers) asked to determine whether fracking is ‘safe’, I would have to point out that the questions of the long-term environmental sustainability, sensibility and/or survivability of fracking were carefully excluded from the remit of the reviews that the Government asked them to undertake.  Reeves therefore concludes that fracking is “a reckless move driven by ideology” that “will commit the UK to being a fossil fuel economy and not a low carbon one” for decades to come…  And so, you can almost hear the frustration in Reeves’ voice as he asks:

What will it take to get people to understand the seriousness of the climate change catastrophe that awaits us?

Reeves then goes on to talk about carbon budgets and our rapidly-declining chances of limiting global average temperature rise to 2 Celsius (compared to pre-1850) and makes the point many others have made that global reserves of fossil fuels are five times greater than that which we would have to burn in order to guarantee at least 2 Celsius temperature rise.  As Reeves puts it:

In other words, we can only avoid devastating climate change if we keep most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. But, is that possible? Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations?  It is absolutely possible, and we must. The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stone. (my emphasis)

The remainder of Reeves’ article (which I would encourage all to read) is a typically incisive summary of how this problem is entirely solvable.  We do not lack the technology or the resources to produce the electricity to provide for the needs of even 10 billion humans. What we (or at least our politicians) lack is the intellectual honesty to admit that the game is up.  Fossil fuels are not the solution; they are the problem.  Furthermore, the longer we (or they) fail to acknowledge this, the greater the problem will become.

Reeves looks at the situation from a range of perspectives, UK, EU and global.  However, in the end, this is a problem that will only ever be solved by people demanding that their politicians solve it:

 The dash for oil in the Arctic and the dash for shale gas elsewhere, shows that we are as addicted to fossil fuels as we ever were.  But a low-carbon future is the one we must all fight for – our gift to the unborn.

Peak Oil – I think humanity is past it!

27 Responses

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  1. “Can we deliberately forgo what many regard as our most precious energy resource – the fuels that have powered 200 years of industrialisation – for the sake of future generations? It is absolutely possible, and we must.”

    Nick Reeves is clearly an optimist.

    My take:

    The problem won’t be solved. It’s impossible given our system of government and the broken economic ideology it supports. And even if it were possible to change that — it’s not — we don’t have the time to do that first.

    Am I a pessimist, or a realist?


    29 April 2013 at 03:03

    • I am inclined to agree with you; and so I think we need a new term for this. How about a ‘reality pessimist’?:-)

      Martin Lack

      29 April 2013 at 09:00

    • It’s increasingly difficult to identify the rather small intellectual space left for “pessimists” to occupy these days.


      29 April 2013 at 18:53

      • You mean due to the vanishingly-small amount of residual uncertainty left? …In which case “optimists” are equally short of space too.

        Martin Lack

        29 April 2013 at 19:03

        • I really meant as the situation is so bad that it’s hard to see how much worse a pessimist can make the view of a realist. The optimists I pictured filling up the rest of the population – but if you require them to operate based on facts and certainty (or lack thereof) then I think one needs a new word for the vast majority of the population.

          Delusionist, perhaps.


          30 April 2013 at 01:59

        • Yes. Most are not aware or refusing to face the fact that, as a species, we are sleepwalking our way to oblivion. Your comparison of fracking to a heroin addict desperate for a fix is very apt; and is one I have used before myself (the analogy that is).

          Martin Lack

          30 April 2013 at 10:36

  2. Currently there are several horsemen of the apocalypse saddling up- we have AGW, we have peak fossil [fracking and the Arctic drilling being proof of the end of cheap] and financial and economic stagnation. All of which seems to be a rather neat circle- we grew on the back of fossilised dinosaurs who grew in a co2 rich geological age – we burn billions of years of solar energy in a couple of centuries in one go- and return the world to the climate of the dinosaurs.

    And we return to economies and populations of the Georgian period. After war, famine etc.

    or we really go green- slow up on population and start looking after the planet and ourselves.

    I have been reading Gail’s blogs – Limitstogrowth- and there is some less than linear processes at work.

    What you would expect when the oil runs out is the price to rise to point only the rich countries could afford to by it- the price would then reflect rarity. Eventually green energy would be able to compete and the rich nations would grow green industries. The alternative is countries end up going to war over oil and we end up in a downward spiral or the emergence of empires who control the world’s resources at the expense of the rest of the world.

    What is happening is stranger- economic peak oil rather than geological peak seems to be the driving force.
    Oil [and gas and coal] have seen massive price rises but have fallen back to just being high- $100- such high energy costs has brought about western economic stagnation and a reduction in oil consumption. We drive less, businesses have to lay off staff to remain competitive etc. This decline has seen less investment in the oil industry [outside of the US bubble] – less investment means less new fields are found.

    Oil producers aren’t benefiting either as reduced exports is simply gobbled up by the home market- which is subsidised to stop the rabble rioting.

    So there is this odd effect where oil reaches a price limit- the west find it too expensive but it is not expensive enough to warrant more exploration and extraction. And try and ignore the fracking investment bubble in the US or investments in the imagined reserves of private oil [20% of world production], this is investors trying to be clever on a train they know will crash- the trick is to jump off just in time- but they’re still idiots.

    Rarity of fossil fuels is not leading to higher prices [real high- just high] just economic stagnation [leading to reduced co2- ] Fracking by its nature and certainly in the very different environment of the Europe is expensive- the biggest threat is what Nick Reeves says- it is distracting investment from clean energy.

    I find it amusing when economists say China at current growth will consume half the world’s oil in 2030- at current growth they will eat the world by 2030 with nothing left for 2031. By then the west will not be able to afford their goods.

    I am reminded of ‘The Truman Show’ – how will end?

    My take is- Grindingly slow economic contraction in the OCHD countries, oil countries consuming more oil for themselves, China & India reaching economic limits with a decade or less. and reduced CO2 emission.

    Spain and Greece are pre movie trailers of the bigger picture. It will buy humans an extra 2 decades, perhaps, the countries who come out the coming darkage will be the ones who switch- just as happened in a post Roman world.

    But I most probably wrong!


    29 April 2013 at 11:03

    • Thanks Jules. I have been very struck by the complete non-coincidence that global ‘Peak Oil’ (as M. King Hubbert defined it) in 2006-07 was swiftly followed by (a loss of confidence in US property markets which led to) the global economic stagnation of 2008-??.

      As for China, forget 2030… The previous article by Reeves to which I have referred on this blog indicated China was already responsible for 50% of global consumption of specific resources, including coal, oil, iron ore, and cement.

      Martin Lack

      29 April 2013 at 14:09

      • Thanks for refreshing my memory of the opinions of your ‘relative’ who is just representing the lie sold to us all since the industrial revolution. My take on the matter is ‘the unexpected’ it won’t be AGW or Peak that nails our aspirations it will be some tiny detail. BTW the China ‘will consume half of oil by 2030 at current rates of growth’. I mean, good luck with that- it will require them [or someone] to discover all the oil that has ever been exploited for 2031.

        I am not saying the future is rosy- but I think it will be different to worst case scenarios which will take longer.
        We could have revolutions in both the US and China due to the lie in constant growth coming to fruition- revolution- chaos- zero growth= Earth given a breather for a few more decades.

        But I don’t know.


        29 April 2013 at 18:00

        • I did not mean to draw attention to the insanely-optimistic (a.k.a. willfully-blind) opinions of my relative-with-no-name. What I was trying to draw attention to was this:

          “China [is already] consuming 53% of the World’s cement production; 48% of the World’s iron ore; and… 47% of the World’s coal.”

          As you say, 7% growth in consumption would result in doubling of consumption in 10 years. As you say, it ain’t going to happen because the resources do not exist.

          Martin Lack

          29 April 2013 at 18:47

        • I feel obliged to note any time I see talk of decades – the Arctic will be free of ice during the summer for the first time in a very long time within only years, in all probability. In a few more years the ice free period will be extending out in time into the summer (time of greater insolation – even more energy into the system from the albedo change).

          I find it almost inconceivable to understand how we could expect even 1 more decade before very fundamental things change for us. On the flipside – fracking isn’t going to be a concern later…


          29 April 2013 at 18:52

        • the next 10-20 years will be interesting to say the least. ‘the Black Swans” in predictions makes things unlikely to occur as we hope or fear but brand new issues.

          I will need correcting- but who predicted a slow warming in the last 15 years but increased warming of 4c ! in the Arctic? And if recent weather patterns are consistent with ice loss it is not panning out as we were told. Far from having warmer dryer summers in the UK it looks like a future of extremes in everything not just heat waves and floods.

          I do agree fracking is a distraction- and an expensive one at that.


          29 April 2013 at 19:04

        • Just another little note – but the global average temperature and change thereof is somewhat of a red herring. A convenient way of keeping score long term, but insufficient for understanding the issue. While the rate at which the earth can gain heat is necessarily mathematically limited – the ability of the earth system to change very rapidly is not.

          Atmospheric and thermohaline circulation would seem capable of changing in much shorter timescales (years – sometimes even less) than globally averaged temperature. The distribution of heat is critically important to our weather and hence climate and it can change truly abruptly – yet no real change in average temperature in the process. Of the direct impacts agriculture is the prime concern, infrastructure a distant second.

          The wildcard for rate of warming is methane. It is 105x as effective as carbon dioxide in a 20 year horizon (far too many people quote the century timescale for it – meaningless when it’s half life in the atmosphere is around a decade).

          Fracking is one of a set of activities representing the last desperate scrabble by a junkie who will do anything for one last fix.


          30 April 2013 at 01:48

  3. Interesting article. I had never heard the analogy before. It’s related, in some sense, to the criticism some have of alarmism. The suggestion is that none of the previously predicted catastrophes have actually come to pass and hence why should we take these predictions seriously. What those who say this are typically reluctant to acknowledge is that we’ve avoided previous catastrophes by doing something about them, rather than simply sitting back pretending that nothing can possibly go wrong. The “alarmism” today isn’t that there is nothing that can be done, it is a suggestion that we should aim to reduce our use of fossil fuels and start using our amazing intellect to find other ways to power our economies.


    29 April 2013 at 12:09

    • Thanks for these comments. It is also worth pointing out that the (so-called) sceptics are not like Galileo or Darwin (who overturned a consensus by weight of all the evidence that it was wrong) they are like members of the Flat Earth Society (who seek to overturn a consensus by ignoring all the evidence that they are wrong).

      Martin Lack

      29 April 2013 at 13:56

    • Given that alarmism is a word that seems to carry a negative connotation, it isn’t the right word for warning that civilisation is increasingly likely to collapse soon, or that the planet may be mostly uninhabitable for humans later this century.

      Is there a word that describes people who reasonably raise the alarm in entirely appropriate circumstances? “Alarmism” smells of a meme propagated by the denial industry to marginalise those who threaten their short term profits.


      29 April 2013 at 18:45

      • How about us calling ourselves “whistle-blowers”? This seems very apt to me; especially since fossil fuel companies still seem to be getting away with ecocide as a result of the biggest false flag operation in the history of industrial irresponsibility.

        Martin Lack

        29 April 2013 at 19:00

        • there is the saying that pessimists are just well informed optimists


          29 April 2013 at 19:10

  4. The price of coal has already gone through the floor to the consternation of investors and politicians. It has been suggested up to 60% of market capitalisation of the fossil fuel companies depends on estimates of yet to be extracted reserves. There are vast fortunes in danger of collapsing here. The cost if extraction curve is going up while the cost of sustainables is going down. The intersection is getting closer!

    Stuart Mathieson

    30 April 2013 at 15:10

    • A good point, well made, Stuart. Thank you.

      As many others have repeatedly said since Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone magazine last July, share prices will collapse if companies are actively prohibited from exploration and exploitation but…

      Why is the price of coal going down – surely demand exceeds supply or – is demand being met by gas? I find it hard to believe that, globally, gas supply exceeds demand.

      The UK government appears to be badly out of step with industry here: A year ago it overturned the previous national planning policy guidelines to allow economic need for opencast coal to trump any or all environmental concerns; and the same applies to their permissive/laissez-faire attitude to shale gas.

      Martin Lack

      30 April 2013 at 15:26

    • There are odd things going on- prices for coal topped $200 ton at the height 2008 crashing as oil did from $140 barrel back to $60. Fossils then climbed back not quite to pre 2008 levels: of $120 for oil and the same for coal. Rarity and demand would normally push those prices back up but oil and coal have stabilised at around the $100 mark and are now falling. It is similar with gold that is heading down [albeit from a very high price].

      It’s a confusing picture. Is our global economy so finally tuned to fossil fuel prices that the markets automatically contract if an economic price limit is reached?


      1 May 2013 at 10:47

  5. Peak cheap oil is definitively passed, even with the Faustian pact with the Saud plutocratic family, dripping with blood:

    Fracking mad people fill up their pockets. It’s not clear what the Total ROI will be. Wells seem to peter out real fast.

    Patrice Ayme

    1 May 2013 at 17:31

    • Thanks Patrice. Meanwhile my spies tell me that UK Coal may follow Scottish Coal into the arms of liquidators/administrators – Truly, we live in interesting times…

      Martin Lack

      1 May 2013 at 17:50

  6. Martin and all bloggers, Nick Reeves passed away last month after a short illness. I’m responsible for the CIWEM magazine ‘The Environment’ and I’ll makes sure we still have hitting articles even though Nick is no longer with us. Justin Taberham, Director of Policy, CIWEM.

    Justin Taberham

    14 August 2013 at 10:39

    • Dear Justin,

      This is truly shocking news, I am almost speechless. Thank you for taking the time to let me know “personally”. Please pass my condolences on to his family. I think Nick will be very hard to replace but I wish you all the best in trying to emulate his work.

      Regards, Martin.

      Martin Lack

      15 August 2013 at 11:12

  7. […] one of the many articles he wrote for the magazine.   On my blog, then, I gave this the title The nonsense of Sustainable Growth, in which I quoted Nick as […]

  8. From Fracking Digest 20/12/2013Professor Smythe and the Lords Select Committee, evidence dated 11th November..

    See also Police removing footpath, public right of way, signs so as to remove protesters.

    Lionel A

    4 January 2014 at 22:33

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