Less than five miles away from my home in Sussex a battle royal is raging. The villagers of Balcombe are protesting against the extraction of unconventional gas from the abundant shale deposits in the locality. This battle is pitting David against Golliath – local people and activists from across the UK against a well financed corporation which has the backing of government. Those with an interest in the environment may have already taken a stance on the vexed issue of fracking. This short piece explains how I reasoned my own position.
1. New energy supplies are necessary
With a rapidly increasing population (predicted to grow by 15,000,000 over the next 17 years), increasing energy demand and the closure of coal fired power stations due to tightening EU emission regulations, the UK faces a well publicised energy gap from this fearsome combination of burgeoning demand and decreases in some supplies. Even if government was bold enough to develop policies to contain population and energy demand (which it is not), new energy sources will have to be found otherwise lights and heaters will need to be switched off.
2. Secure energy supplies are required
The UK has been importing energy supplies for decades. Coal imports are higher than they have been for many years. However, in this multi-polar and uncertain world, it would be a mistake to become dependent upon other countries (e.g. Russia) to power our households and businesses. Energy security is a pressing political, social and economic concern. Hence, the UK should plug its energy gap with indigenous supplies.
3. What are our options?
We can use more oil, gas and coal, but these generate greenhouse gases (GHG) when burned. This option has to go to the back of the queue.
We can increase our use of nuclear, but nuclear power stations are very expensive to build and the private sector is not queuing up to construct them. New nuclear does not generate GHG but there is the unresolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste which raises difficult issues of inter-generational equity and very high containment costs. It is not the answer, but it may form part of the answer.
Renewables are on the rise. They are not without controversy – they require public subsidy; they burn carbon to an extent (eg in the materials used to make wind turbines); and they may have visual impacts on our landscape and diminishing wildernesses. These are prices worth paying – as long as the subsidies are kept within sensible bounds – because these forms of energy are sustainable and they do not generate GHG. Renewable energy is the future.
Where does that leave fracking? Shale gas may not generate as much GHG as burning coal, but it is still a fossil fuel so it should not be prioritised for use in the energy mix. It does not necessarily follow that it should be discouraged or banned.
There is concern that fracking causes earth tremors and is a threat to groundwater supplies, but what does science have to tell us about these risks? The Royal Society Report into fracking (2012) showed that the risks are relatively remote and modest. However if fracking takes place in a large-scale way, it is possible that unknown risks may emerge and cause significant environmental damage.
If fracking is subjected to smart regulation (as argued in a previous blog) it could, in my estimation, contribute to the UK’s energy mix, albeit as a secondary or fallback supply after renewables have been prioritised (especially groundsource energy, offshore wind and tidal).
It was interesting that in recently announcing his full and unconditional support for fracking, David Cameron made no reference to the greenhouse gas emissions which result from burning shale gas. Furthermore, the Prime Minister indicated that the laws to regulate shale has are fit for purpose (hardly!) and that the compensation payable to local communities (1% of profits) was sufficient to address inconveniences arising from fracking such as noise, traffic, infrastructure, etc.
Clearly the people of Balcombe would beg to differ. Their village is almost under siege. The police presence is substantial and visible – on occasion there have been 50 officers in attendance, almost out numbering protestors. Balcombe house prices have dropped by as much as 15%. Their voices are not being heard. Fracking has been prioritised ahead of renewables and new nuclear as the answer to our energy prayers. It is bad policy underpinned by bad law.