Friday, 16 August 2013

Fracking and Politics – Like Moths to a Gas Flare

I’ve mentioned before how the idea of “green-ness” has fallen out of vogue, in part because as a buzzword it was never going to last, in part because of other distractions in political and media agendas. Global warming has been a footnote in the news, I feel, for at least the last four years, a period dominated by the financial crisis and punctuated in the popular imagination only with the obtuse and inconclusive Copenhagen and Johannesburg talks. The focus of reporting on such individual events cements the idea that environmental degradation is an issue for campaigns rather than system changes. For another example of short-termism in policy-making, consider the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. As shocking and tragic this disaster was, panic over the potential for nuclear power to go wrong prompted Germany (and more understandably, Japan) to mothball their nuclear energy programs. Sustainable energy is unlikely to quickly make up the shortfall, so to placate a worried public and keep their power on requires regression to gas, oil or coal – all ‘dirtier’ forms of energy than nuclear. In short, climate change isn’t sexy any more, and renewable energy isn’t a vote winner.

The reason, then, that the current government has fallen so keenly upon the prospect of fracking – the process of fracturing rocks with highly-pressurised water and chemicals to release the gas entombed within - is that it is a political panacea. Fracking produces natural gas, which is touted as the cleanest fossil fuel and so limits the damage to the UK’s green credentials. Anecdotes about flaming tap water and polluted groundwater in fracked areas have failed to fundamentally derail the idea.

 Fracking also reduces, to an extent, the UK’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Russian gas (a reduction which could be especially substantial if the tentative explorations in the Falklands bear oily fruit). Energy independence, abundant, cheap power and the prospect of eager private investment in developing the fracking industry (subsidies notwithstanding) seem healthy for the Treasury, and so the taxpayer. The idea of home-made British energy also has the happy side effect of feeding the current enthusiasm for ill-defined “Britishness”, which the state naturally encourages and co-opts as a tool for winning the votes of patriots.

Being less cynical, fracking does sound like a good deal for the UK. It may well offer cheaper power , ideally with well-regulated production, as well as many jobs in, for one, Lancashire, where according to the BGS and energy company Cuadrilla, “1,300 trillion cubic feet of gas lie, which would be enough to supply the country for at least 43 years, even if only 10% of reserves can be extracted” (via The Guardian).

But the problem that this article is trying to point out is that falling back on fossil fuels, while useful in the short-term, reinforces the idea that climate change is a problem to be dealt with in the future, or by someone else. Fracking is an enormously useful tool to side-line the environment in public discourse, and to set back the environmentalist agenda in the time lag in which new legislation and regulation is developed. The only other opponents are the nimbyists – and perhaps the fundamental question is that in a time when everything is infused with economics, can anything prevent a return to fossil fuels?

Alex Jackman