by Roger Wall
Does the Earth move for You? If you live in the North West of England, it already has on a couple of occasions and may well do so more often in the future. After a one-year moratorium on exploratory fracking, the Government has decided that the scientific evidence does not link the practice of forcing liquids into the ground at high pressures to crack rocks with the occurrence of earthquakes. Moreover, within weeks of this ground-breaking decision (did you see what I did there?), it has decided to offer huge tax incentives to companies wishing to exploit the supposedly vast reserves of shale gas beneath our feet (or at least under the feet of those who live in the North West). So after a few wobbles, energy policy appears to have shaken off its reservations, papered over any cracks in the science and embraced shale gas as the next cheap energy alternative.
Of course, fracking has been going on for a while in the States. I recently watched Gasland by Josh Fox which paints a bleak picture of the environmental consequences of fracking. Josh travels through a world of polluted streams and groundwater supplies, where water from the tap catches fire if you put a match to it; a world where nodding donkeys fill the landscape and the night sky is ablaze with the flares of waste (greenhouse) gases being burned off. It’s a pretty horrible scenario with energy companies taking advantage of exemptions in groundwater pollution legislation to ride roughshod over local residents and do more or less what they want. You’d think that couldn’t happen here in the UK, …
To be fair, the current government clearly has a problem: it doesn’t want to be the one in charge when the lights go out. To be absolutely fair, the next government will have exactly the same problem. Actually, we all have the same problem: nobody wants the lights to go out (apart from those who argue against light pollution but we can talk about that another time). Advances in technology and rising fuel prices mean that exploitation of these shale gas reserves is now seen as economically viable. It’s certainly being sold as a cheap solution to our energy problems (and we do have energy problems) despite the fact that many are concerned we’ll end up paying later (one way or another).
Sustainability principles would suggest that we should be thinking about environmental and social benefits as well. However, if you live in London (or even Birmingham), the North West probably seems like a long way away. It’s easy to dismiss local protests as NIMBYism but this always seems a little unfair to me. People care precisely because it is their back yard that’s under threat. We would be in a much more serious state if they didn’t give a hoot: watch any documentary about a semi-abandoned sink estate on the fringes of a post industrial city if you don’t believe me. Anyway, the fight appears to be moving from what’s in my back yard to what’s under it. I predict the emergence of more and more NUMBYs in the North West and, despite not living there, I’m inclined to wish them luck – I think they’ll need it.Roger Wall leads the MSc Environmental Sustainability course at Birmingham City University and also plays guitar in a rock band called The Barefoot Serpents. His interests are wide-ranging but he’s particularly intrigued by the complexities of the challenges facing the world today and the ways in which they’re connected. Unfortunately, he hasn’t worked out any of the answers yet.
Links relating to the blog [viewed 24 July 2013]
Gasland: A film by Josh Fox
Official (US) website
Tax breaks to be offered to shale gas companies
John Moylan, BBC News, 19 July 2013
Exploratory drilling in Lancashire
Environment Agency, 25 June 2013
Coming to sites across the UK soon – fracking flares
Tom Bawden in The Independent, 9 May 2013