This is a guest post by Harriet Agerholm
Last week, Lord Stern, the foremost climate change economist, concluded that Cameron’s claims that fracking would drive down domestic fuel bills were entirely ‘baseless’. In the US, gas is rarely exported due to the large distance it would have to cover in order to reach the European and Asian markets, so internal production has driven down its price. In the UK, however, we trade a significant amount of our gas production to other nations, and therefore, according to Stern, households are unlikely to benefit from a drop in the price of gas. Fracking won’t help to reduce fuel poverty, despite what some politicians say.
Lord Stern isn’t the first expert to reach this conclusion, but it appears that the Coalition is impervious to the advice it is receiving. Not only does it ignore the economic flaws in its plan, but it refuses to see the full extent of the environmental costs.
Part of the problem is the fact that too much emphasis is placed on the immediately obvious hazards of fracking: water pollution and earthquakes. These dangers are real. Last year geophysical research at Columbia University found that as a result of wastewater disposal from fracking, more than one hundred small earthquakes were triggered in Ohio. However, these problems have potential solutions. They are symptoms that need to be acknowledged and prevented from happening, but they also distract from the real long-term harm of fracking – its impact on the climate.
Cameron’s government hides behind the façade that natural gas is a lower carbon option and is, therefore, better for the environment than coal or oil. It is common knowledge that although natural gas has a lower carbon footprint than other fossil fuels, it is has just as much, if not more effect, on warming the planet. Tom Wigley of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Colorado points out that the amount of methane that leaks into the atmosphere when fracking is carried out will “more than offset the reduction in warming due to reduced CO2 emissions”. Far from reducing our impact on the environment, natural gas could actually accelerate global warming.
Ed Davey, the energy minister, addressed the issue of methane leakage and the other hazards fracking poses last week, saying that there would need to be strict regulation of the industry. But given that many of fracking’s effects are unknown, how is it possible to regulate properly against the dangers? And given that they have so much to gain, do we trust huge fossil fuel companies to stick to the rules? Energy companies (BP, for example) don’t exactly have a spotless record on this sort of thing. Davey also claims that gas is necessary for a transition to renewables, but while there is a great deal of political energy going into finding gas, there seems to be little effort being made to promote actual sustainable energy.
Writing in The Guardian recently, Conservative MP Nick Herbert derided anti-fracking protestors for being middle class clichés, on the grounds that their actions aren’t of a comparable scale to Egyptian freedom fighters or Martin Luther King. Of course they aren’t. But in the UK, what is? Is Herbert seriously arguing that any act of political protest in the UK is invalid because things aren’t as bad here as in Tahrir Square or the Segregation-era Deep South? And doesn’t the relatively small number of protestors reflect a problem with our society, rather than the protesters themselves that these are the only people protesting? Surely it’s disappointing that only such a small, specific, group are willing to campaign on an issue like this which affects everyone.
Herbert says that protesters like those who oppose fracking are undemocratic. But surely the purpose of democracy is for everyone to have a say, and everyone to have some influence? The fact of the matter is that Cameron is determined that fracking should continue, while the protestors think he’s wrong (and have quite a lot of good evidence to back up their view). So maybe the best way to get your voice heard is to act rather obnoxiously (in the eyes of Nick Herbert) and protest.