Monday 26 January 2015, Adam Rawcliffe

Fracking: let’s ignore the NIMBYs and ‘electrohippies’

The Academy's resident Lancastrian, Adam Rawcliffe, on why we would be mad to pass up the opportunity of shale gas.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has called for a moratorium on the extraction of shale gas until there is better regulation of the method used: hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’. There has certainly been plenty of public discussion about fracking in recent days: Parliament is set to vote on the new Infrastructure Bill, which would reduce planning barriers to fracking companies; emails leaked to Friends of the Earth appeared to show the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, calling for the fast-tracking of fracking to be a ‘personal priority’ before the end of this parliament; and Lancashire County Council (LCC) looks set to approve two controversial shale-gas sites between Preston and Blackpool on Wednesday, despite being advised against such a move by its own planning department.

As the IoI’s resident Lancastrian, I’ve been asked to give my two cents’ worth. So here it is: Lancashire would be stupid to heed the calls for a moratorium. Instead, we should take up the considerable mantle of becoming industrial pioneers.

First, let’s deal with the doubters. The EAC’s concerns rest upon two main arguments: firstly, the uncertainties relating to the impact fracking would have on water supplies, air quality and public health; and secondly, the eco-unfriendly nature of the industry and, more specifically, its incompatibility with the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets.

Messing up lovely Lancashire?

The EAC report itself acknowledges the Environment Agency’s assurance that no hazardous substances will be permitted if they might pollute groundwater. It also quotes Public Health England (PHE), which found that health risks from fracking ‘will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated’. The Lancashire County Council planning officers themselves roundly rejected any suggestions that fracking would pollute water supplies or cause significant earthquakes or air pollution.

So, with regulation, all should be well? Not so fast. The EAC’s report counterbalances evidence from the Environment Agency and PHE with evidence from the Green Party, Frack Off Fife, a local doctor who lives near a proposed Lancashire site, and a man named Paul Mobbs, a self-confessed ‘freelance campaigner, activist, environmental consultant, author, lecturer and engineer’ and former ‘electrohippie’. That’s not exactly the strongest of evidence bases, and lends weight to claims that the EAC ‘listened to ill-informed green groups not science’ in constructing a ‘rushed’ report which will look good for little more than wrapping tomorrow’s fish and chips.

Lancashire’s planning officials offer a more solid but still unsatisfactory case. It suggests that 24-hour drilling over several months would cause noise pollution equating to ‘a fridges hum’ to a dozen or so homes hundreds of yards from both sites, noise that would become less and less frequent as the well is established. It also describes the additional traffic from 50 lorry trips a day as having an ‘unacceptable impact’ on the country roads around Roseacre. Good breakdown, bad conclusion. If even the tiniest modicum of the promises of fracking the north-west come true - with the grandest of projections claiming we could fuel the country for a decade of gas if the north were fracked to its limits - then I think it’s worth the risk of mildly disturbing a few rowdy NIMBYs. Let’s hope the council decides to ignore these reservations.

It is certainly appealing to me as a Prestonian to imagine the scenario of Godzilla’s evil twin, Cuadrilla, rampaging through Blackpool Pleasure Beach. What is proposed currently are two sites the size of football pitches in an area that, though it is picturesque, is hardly an area of outstanding natural beauty. The negative environmental impacts are certainly dwarfed by the benefits of greater energy self-sufficiency. And what Cuadrilla is proposing is merely to dip its toes in the water with limited drilling. If all is well, then let’s do lots more; if there are more problems than originally envisaged, then we can reassess. At the end of the day, it’s only Blackpool. (Only joking, honest!)

Cooking the planet, with gas?

Fracking is worth the relatively minor hassles from traffic and noise. But what about climate change? The EAC report claims that developing shale gas is ‘incompatible’ with the UK’s climate-change targets; if we frack, it seems, there is no chance of a green future. Here the EAC and the anti-frack brigade miss the point and become self-defeating. As many, including Professor Zoe Shipton of the University of Strathclyde and Ken Cronin of the UK Onshore Operators Group, have pointed out, we can’t just swap gas for wind or solar power because we don’t just use gas for to generate electricity. About 83 per cent of UK homes are heated by gas, we use it to cook with and it sustains jobs in industry, including as a feedstock for chemical production. In short, as Shipton states, ‘even in the greenest of “going green” scenarios, the UK will still be dependent on gas for many years’.

It is also a false belief that blocking fracking will lead to a greater focus on developing green energy solutions; it won’t, it will lead to a greater reliance on coal. Hence, the Committee on Climate Change and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have both previously stated that shale gas is a viable method for tackling climate change. Fracking can actually help us to reduce emissions now, if that is what we choose to do, by reducing reliance upon coal without the need for brand-spanking new carbon-capture techniques and, best of all, we’ll make quite a bit of cash.

A new industrial revolution

So why Lancashire, and why now? Fracking could bring up to 30,000 jobs to Lancashire and the north of England more broadly along with the attendant economic benefits. The UK uses three trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year; according to the British Geological Survey, there could be somewhere in the region of 1,329 trillion cubic feet of gas under northern England. Though fracking has finite limits, it would also have a significant economic impact for over a decade. We would be mad to completely reject this opportunity.

Yet, in many ways this is just the tip of the iceberg for what fracking could do for Lancashire. Lancashire once again has a chance to be an industrial pioneer, as it was during the Industrial Revolution. Just as our last energy boom in the North Sea thrust Aberdeen into the global spotlight as a world leader of a tricky but fruitful extraction process, so Lancashire should be more than willing to seize the initiative and lead the way on fracking.

The process of energy extraction is getting harder not easier and there is no realistic possibility of a gas-free UK any time soon. Shortly, the whole world will be looking to grab natural resources from tougher spots; I hope that when they do that they find the answer between Preston and Blackpool. Let’s cast aside this risk aversion and scream towards Lancashire County Council: ‘Please, please, please in my back yard!’

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