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Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The nature of the beast - an APPCCG event on fracking and climate change

Caroline Lucas. Source: Give Me Strength
The term ‘fracking’ has a tendency to evoke strong feelings in many and the speakers at the APPCCG event were no different. As explained by the panel’s chair (Caroline Lucas the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion) the high level of enthusiasm for the exploration of shale gas across party lines in Westminster has led to concern. This concern is amongst not only those that question the safety of the technique itself but those who consider unconventional gas exploration/production to be counter intuitive to the UK’s attempts to reach its emission targets. Support for an early day moratorium on fracking (introduced by Caroline Lucas) has so far received support from a mere 25 MPs.

Fracking is a method used to release and extract unconventional gas. It involves injecting wells at high pressure with water, proppants, tracers and chemical additives to fracture the formation in which the gas is trapped. The technique is the subject of much controversy and it should be understood that the panel was structured in such a way that the speakers focussed on concerns surrounding fracking and consequently none were proponents of the technique.

Image of fracking taken from Occupy Denver
The environmental concerns that accompany drilling and fracking for unconventional gas were impressed upon the panel with Dr Mariann Lloyd Smith (Of the National Toxics Network in Australia) emphasising that due to the ‘nature of the beast’ a safe industry was an idealists dream. The best that could be hoped for was a regulatory system that ensured a safer industry developed. Such feeling is echoed in the UNEP global environmental alert of 2012 which stated that not all fracking safety/environmental concerns could be removed through regulation. Some examples of the prominent concerns are the contents of not only fracking fluids but also drilling fluids. The chemical content of these fluids were described as a mixture of chemicals some of which have failed to be assessed in terms of their use in the fracking process. Even with the level of these chemicals composing a very low percentage of the fluids themselves, the level of chemicals (in kg) that remain in the ground can reach high levels. (For further details and figures from the Australian experience see In addition to such chemicals the naturally occurring contaminants that can be released during the process are a cause for concern particularly as exposure pathways mean that such materials have the potential to cause damage to land, people and livestock. 

It was not just health and environmental risks that were raised as prominent issues. The social costs of fracking and unconventional gas extraction were a key concern for many of the speakers. Eve McNamara (from the Ribble Estuary Against Fracking) emphasised that the community in West Lancashire have received no input from regulators and the authorities leaving them in a position where their only information resource is the actual company exploring for shale gas in the area, Cuadrilla. The lack of communication and consultation has meant that the only engagement the community has had with regulators has arisen from the proactive behaviour of REAF itself. The issue has sadly led to division in the community particularly in relation to the leasing of agricultural land where neighbouring farmers oppose the exploration for gas. 

The protection of the public interest is not just a concern for the communities affected by fracking. Tony Bosworth (Friends of the Earth) emphasised that the upcoming planning guidance and Environment Agency guidance as well as the regulations on fracking need to be based on the precautionary principle and full public consultation with a full EIA conducted for every application. So far, the provision of information, consultation and explanation of how the public interest is being protected is considered by FOE to be a failure.

John Broderick, Tyndall Centre
The question of whether the exploration and production of unconventional gas should be pursued in the UK is not only a question of environmental safety. Its implications for climate change and the UK’s emission targets are significant. Dr John Broderick (from the Tyndall Centre) emphasised that in seeking to reach our targets it is the cumulative emissions over a period of time that cause the degree of climate change we will experience.  It would seem that our probability of avoiding a greater than 2oC rise in temperature is already history. As such the use of unconventional gas as a ‘transition’ would mean that the continued consumption of fossil fuels would require a drastically higher annual reduction in emissions in the future to compensate, leaving little room for any future emissions from fossil fuels. Whilst the US experience has arguable shown that US coal emissions have decreased since the production of US shale gas, the US’s coal production has remained constant simply resulting in the export of coal. Unless shale gas can prove to be a true substitute leaving the coal in the ground, the argument for shale as a replacement loses its force.  Overall, Dr Broderick’s central point was that we need to focus on leaving more fossil fuel in the ground if we are to meet emission targets and as such shale gas is incompatible with this aim. It is clear that he is not alone in this consideration with FOE clearly taking the stance that fracking and unconventional gas are simply a risk we should not take.

So what does the future hold for fracking? Will communities receive greater information and support? Will a safer industry be enough to quell concerns and will our desire for domestic gas trump our desire to reach our emission targets?

This blog post is by Joanne Hawkins.     
A PhD Researcher looking at the challenge of hydraulic fracturing: energy resilience, the environment and effective regulation at the University of Bristol Law School.
Joanne Hawkins, University of Bristol


  1. Well there's a well balanced panel! The fact that Ms Lucas only has 25 MPs supporting speaks volumes! I wish I would have been able to come. The one issue that seems not to be discussed is if we are going to leave carbon in the ground, what are we to do to fuel our economies? We will need to have a carbon free futire but when people start having bans on cars, no electricity, bans on heating all the protests will change! I am afraid the nonsense I have heard from some of the speakers before means you will not be able to get a fair view. If you want a slightly more balanced view on the engineering risks of hydraulic fracturing as an engineering discipline. please check the 'Fracking in the UK' page in Wikipedia. kennywpara At Oh, and by the way, all of the regs are in place. See the wiki page.

  2. If the government put the same level of effort and funding into renewables we would stand a chance of moving away from dirty fossil fuels. Fracking is touted as a means to bridge the gap to a renewable energy mix but the industry won't be online for another 20 years. By which time run away climate change will mean it is too late.