The Great Fracking Debate (Sustainmagazine.com)

Chris Faulkner, chief executive of Breitling Energy Corporation, is visiting Britain to defend the reputation of fracking for shale gas, even taking out an advert in the Sunday Telegraph. Here, Chris Faulkner goes head to head with Friends of the Earth’s anti-fracking campaigner Tony Bosworth:

Britain’s Fracking Future

Last year in the UK, the average fuel bill soared to a record £1,353, and the Office for Budget Responsibility foresees an increase of another £100 on average this year. For many, survival will take a huge toll on the wallet or purse. If that doesn’t set you shivering, consider this: at one point last winter, the UK’s gas supply was a mere six hours from running out. Imagine what would have happened if it had.

It isn’t doesn’t have to be that way. The future will be a lot warmer if the UK can muster the political will to embrace hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, a drilling technique that releases natural gas stuck in shale formations, opening access to enormous underground reserves.

The UK has largely refrained from taking advantage of these previously inaccessible reserves to date, citing environmental concerns. A close look at the fracking experience across the Atlantic, however, demonstrates how unfounded the concerns are and how beneficial fracking can be, both environmentally and economically.

As the United States has become more adept at tapping its existing energy resources, largely through fracking, the yields have been astronomical: last year, the United States became the biggest natural gas producer in the world.

The UK could benefit from this technological innovation, too; a British Geological Survey estimate suggests there are around 40 trillion cubic meters of shale gas in northern England alone. If only 10 per cent of the UK’s shale reserves were tapped, that is enough to supply the entire UK for the next half century.

The opposition to fracking is a product of scientific misunderstanding — or worse,  an agenda put forward by supposed environmental advocates who stand to profit if natural gas never lives up to its full potential.

Contrary to what the scaremongers suggest, natural gas from fracking actually benefits the environment: natural gas emits a fraction of the carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur oxide of coal — and right now, coal accounts for 40 per cent of the UK’s energy consumption. In the United States, as energy consumption has come to rely more on natural gas and less on coal, carbon emissions have plummeted to their lowest point in nearly two decades.

Alarmists have also raised concerns about fracking’s effect on the environment, claiming it contaminates groundwater and releases dangerous amounts of methane. Last August, more than 2,000 people protested against fracking in West Sussex. So rowdy were the protests that they cost millions to police. The same is now happening at Barton Moss near Manchester.

Yet no scientific evidence supports the claim that fracking poses a meaningful environmental or health risk. Public Health England has concluded that the small emissions from fracking pose little risk of harm. And the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have likewise ‘concluded that the health, safety and environmental risks associated with the [fracking] technique can be effectively managed’, as the BBC reported last year.

Across the ocean, similar findings have been reported. Lisa Jackson, the former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and no friend of fracking — conceded that there are ‘no proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water’. And a recent study by the University of Texas at Austin — the most comprehensive and authoritative yet — concludes that earlier estimates of the amount of methane emitted at fracking sites were vastly overblown. The installation of proper ‘completion’ equipment ‘reduces methane emissions by 99 percent’.

And the economic benefits of fracking basically speak for themselves.

A new study found that in the United States, fracking caused an energy boom that has created around 2.1 million jobs. It also added $75 billion to government coffers at both the state and federal levels. Moreover, cheaper fuel has spurred the domestic manufacturing sector, increasing industrial production. That, in turn, helps the overall economy: HIS, an American company, has estimated that cheaper oil and gas has already increased the income in the average American home by $1,200 a year.

Consumers benefit, too; with more than 10,000 wells opening up each year, natural gas costs Americans less than a third of what their British counterparts pay.

With fracking, the UK could expand its energy supply and strengthen its economy without jeopardizing the health and safety of its citizens. As the winter cold will eventually arrive and replace the wind and rain, that’s heartwarming news.

Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth, responds:

With all the zeal of a new convert, David Cameron has declared that his government will go ‘all out for shale’. Listening to the prime minister’s claims, it seems that he has swallowed hook, line and sinker the hype of those who stand to profit from fracking like Chris Faulkner, and really does believe that shale gas is the silver bullet answer to the UK’s energy problems.

Mr. Cameron claims shale gas will cut energy bills. He persists in saying this, despite the list of experts saying it’s unlikely growing ever longer. Mr. Cameron’s own Energy Secretary, Ed Davey doesn’t agree. Nor does the chair of Cuadrilla, Lord Browne. And globally-respected climate change economist Lord Stern has described Mr. Cameron’s claims as ‘baseless economics’.

Mr. Cameron assures us fracking will be safe. He bases this on the supposed robustness of the UK’s regulation. But the main regulator, the Environment Agency, seems to be positioning itself as ‘the regulator that likes to say yes’, telling the industry that it will avoid objecting where it can. Friends of the Earth has already caught the Environment Agency asleep on the job: initially it said that Cuadrilla did not need environmental permits for its drilling in Balcombe last summer. It was only when Friends of the Earth intervened that it decided the permits were needed after all. The agency is facing 15 per cent staff cuts, a reduced budget and has a number of other responsibilities such as protecting us from flooding.

Mr. Cameron seems to be disregarding the view of the United Nations Environment Programme that fracking can lead to unavoidable environmental impacts, even when it’s done properly. Fracking is banned in France and there’s a moratorium in Germany because of concerns about environmental impacts. What does Mr. Cameron know that the French and Germans don’t?

Shale gas is being proposed as a climate change solution, simply because it is not coal. But this is like saying that low-tar cigarettes are healthy because they’re not as strong as Woodbines. The bottom line is that shale gas is another fossil fuel, and to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to cut fossil fuel use fast. We can’t burn the fossil fuels we already have, so why drill for more?

According to the International Energy Agency, increasing use of shale gas globally would set the world on course for a global temperature rise of 3.5°C. That’s way above the 2 degrees limit that the UK and other countries say we shouldn’t exceed. Climate change won’t just impact on the other side of the world in a few decades: the current flooding shows it is happening here and now. No wonder that the IEA warned that what they called ‘the golden age of gas’ would not be a golden age for humanity.

The industry and its advocates in government claim that we can copy what has happened in the US. But experts say this is unlikely: the geology is different, costs will be higher and we don’t have an established onshore drilling industry – Lancashire is not Texas. Nor can we guarantee that any gas drilled will be ‘our’ gas. The UK is part of a European gas market, with interconnectors linking us to mainland Europe. If gas companies can get more by selling the gas abroad, then they will.

Fracking for shale gas is the wrong direction for UK energy policy. It’s wrong to base our energy future on shale gas when we don’t know how much there is under the UK, how much can be extracted and at what cost. It’s wrong to drill for more fossil fuels when we can’t afford to burn even half of what we already have. It’s wrong to risk impacts on the local environment and human health when we don’t need to.

And we don’t need to. The UK is blessed with fantastic potential for renewable energy from the wind, sun and waves. Exploiting this potential, alongside cutting energy waste, is the UK’s energy future. We need a change in direction in energy policy – but this should be to embrace a green energy revolution for the 21st century. Fracking would send the country down a high-carbon dead-end street that would only benefit the fracking companies like the one Mr. Faulkner leads.

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