In the second of a two-part debate, Dr Jeremy Leggett, author of The Energy of Nations and Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards, makes the case against a technology that’s been presented as a rich new source for fossil fuel.
Hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, is a mining technology in which hydraulically pressurised liquid is used to crack rock, thereby allowing the recovery of hydrocarbons such as gas and oil. Almost no issue of our times has aroused as much heated debate as fracking, to the point where the real issues are almost overwhelmed by Hollywood films, lobbying groups and geo-political arguments. Here we present the second half of a two-part debate.
AGAINST: Jeremy Leggett
Dr Jeremy Leggett (pictured right; DPhil in earth sciences, Wolfson, 1978), author of The Energy of Nations, is founder and chairman of Solarcentury and founder and chairman of SolarAid, a solar lighting charity set up with five per cent of Solarcentury’s annual profits, itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa. He is an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards.
I am opposed to fracking in the UK for five main reasons: economic risk, local environmental cost, global environmental cost, social cost and opportunity cost. All the evidence for what follows is in the log of events on my website, www.jeremyleggett.net.
First, the economic risk. The US ‘shale boom’ looks as though it will turn into a bubble. The oil and gas industry is losing cash by the tens of billions, because high drilling costs mean most companies are spending more than they are earning from fracked gas and oil. Wider US industry may have benefited from cheap gas in the short term, but production from all shale gas regions save the Marcellus has peaked already, and many of us watching the detail see little prospect of the gas industry delivering growing production far into the future.
Second, the local environmental cost. Once Dick Cheney freed fracking from scrutiny under the Safe Water Act (the so-called ‘Halliburton Loophole’), bad news about contamination and health impacts should have been predictable. It has been slow to emerge, in part because of widespread use of gagging orders by the industry as part of compensation payments for wrecked farms and impaired health. But now a regular drip of bad news has started, soon likely to snowball as ever more people realise the reality behind the industry’s insistence that all is well.
Third, the global environmental cost. Gas industry operations can leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from wellhead to hob. Early research by the rare university teams not cowed by oil-industry funding are very worrying when it comes to fracking. Fracked gas may well prove to be worse than coal in greenhouse terms, over the full-life-cycle. And British shale basins are far more faulted than US shale basins.
Fourth, the social cost. It is likely that few British people as yet fully appreciate the industrial infrastructure, waste disposal challenges and lorry movements that are required for a typical US shale ‘sweet spot’, and what the social cost of that would be if superimposed on rural Britain. Yet already local opposition is severe, even against single vertical unfracked test wells. Planning for the first such was recently rejected by a council in Sussex for the first time, with objectors ‘weeping with relief’ in the chamber on hearing the decision.
Many such objectors are Conservative voters. The Prime Minister says he wants to deliver sufficient shale gas to drive down the gas price enough for manufacturing to return to the UK. He has little or no chance of getting that past his own voter base without committing political suicide, even if much gas proves extractable by fracking — which the British Geological Survey clearly has doubts about.
Fifth, the opportunity cost. There is a shovel-ready alternative over time that can be developed surprisingly quickly: a power source that is infinite and easy to tap. Politically, the government’s own opinion polls show that solar is outstandingly the most popular energy technology with the British public, year after year, miles ahead of fracking — even now, so early in the game. The opportunity cost is that many leaders in the oil and gas industry, and their supporters in government, want actively to suppress this fast-growing global industry, with its fast-falling cost base — along with other clean-energy industries — so as to not put investors in gas off.
Read the case for fracking, by the Shell Professor of Earth Sciences
This article first appeared in the Michaelmas 2014 issue of Oxford Today. Read the full issue online here, or download in pdf, iPhone/iPad or Android format. Image of fracking protest © Randi Sokoloff via Shutterstock.com.