What should socialists say about fracking?

Submitted by Matthew on 10 September, 2013 - 8:40

The recent protests in Balcombe in Sussex have prompted a revival of the largely dormant climate movement in the UK.

AWL members have rightly taken part in the mobilisations, which have brought local residents into an alliance with climate activists to thwart drilling efforts and stymie the Tory-led government’s “dash for gas” policy.

Shale gas has emerged as a potentially significant new source of “unconventional gas” in recent years, particularly in the US. Its extraction is now possible because of advances in drilling and other technologies, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Shale gas production in the US expanded tenfold in the two decades after 1990, now making up around 15% of total US gas supply.

Climate vs fracking

Socialist opposition to fracking is based on a number of strong ecological and democratic arguments. The principal reason to oppose fracking is that the process is at odds with efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

The Tyndall Centre (Broderick 2011) concluded that large-scale extraction of shale gas “cannot be reconciled” with climate change commitments to limit global temperature increases to 2°C. In the UK context, shale gas could undermine the decarbonisation budgets proposed by the Committee on Climate Change.

Shale gas advocates point to the US, where shale gas extraction has coincided with cheaper gas prices and falling emissions. US CO2 emissions from domestic energy have declined by 9% since a peak in 2005. But another Tyndall report (Broderick and Anderson 2012) estimates that between 35% and 50% of power sector emissions reductions may have been due to shale gas price effects, with the rest was due to renewable and nuclear power.

Even if this is an improvement in the US, it is no argument globally. “Climate mitigation in one country” is not progress if it simply displaces the emissions elsewhere. There has been a substantial increase in coal exports from the US over the same period and globally coal consumption continues to rise. More than half of the emissions avoided in the US power sector may have been exported as coal.

Gas is sometimes advocated as a lesser evil, because gas-fired power stations emit 57% less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than coal-fired plants. However US research has shown that shale gas has higher production-related greenhouse gas emissions than conventional gas. Greater venting of gas includes damaging “fugitive” methane emissions. An LSE report (Bassi 2013) states that “some analysts have concluded that these have been so great as to eliminate the lifecycle greenhouse gas emission benefits of shale gas compared with coal for power generation, although this has been disputed”.

Transitional fuel?

Tyndall researchers say the argument that shale gas should be exploited as a transitional fuel in the shift to a low carbon economy “seems tenuous at best”.

In the UK, shale gas will not substitute for coal. Currently, around two-thirds of coal consumption is imported, so any reduction in coal demand from the UK could trigger reductions in global coal prices. The Tyndall Centre states: “The supply-demand relationship of relatively liberalised markets makes clear that a reduction in the price for coal will facilitate increased demand elsewhere”. Consequently, whilst the UK may be able to reduce its national emissions through indigenous shale gas, this risks triggering a net increase in global emissions from coal, to add to the extra emissions from shale gas.

It is possible that UK-produced shale gas could substitute for imported gas, although it would not negate the need for gas imports. However shale gas could reduce gas prices and direct investment away from renewable energy.

Capital investment in shale gas could potentially displace offshore and onshore wind capacity. It is no coincidence that big oil firms like Shell and BP have moved away from renewables and into shale gas in recent years.

Any short-term financial benefit that may accrue to shale gas heating and electricity risks “locking-in” fossil fuel-intensive energy infrastructure for decades, making future efforts to tackle climate change much harder.

The Tyndall researchers concluded: “It is also important to note that in a market-led global energy system where energy demand worldwide is growing rapidly, even if shale gas were to substitute for imported gas in the UK, leading to no rise in emissions, it is likely that this gas would just be used elsewhere, resulting in a global increase in emissions.”

Other environmental arguments

The Tyndall report (2011) found “a clear risk of contamination of groundwater from shale gas extraction”, although the LSE report stated that in the UK most aquifers are 300 below the surface, while fracking takes place at a depth of two kilometres, making the upward flow of liquids “highly unlikely”.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is due to produce a study next year on risks to groundwater. At the very least, stiff regulations will be needed if surface pollution is to be avoided. Significant amounts of water are required to extract shale gas and this could put severe pressure on water supplies in areas of commercial exploitation.

The seismic impacts of fracking were brought into dramatic relief when hydraulic fracking at an exploratory site was stopped after a magnitude 1.5 earthquake on 27 May 2011 near Blackpool. This was preceded by a magnitude 2.3 earthquake on 1 April 2011. An investigation concluded that it is “highly probable” that the hydraulic fracturing triggered the recorded seismic events. There are also significant noise and traffic impacts from the fracking process and concerns about the chemicals used in fracturing fluids.

Jobs and prices

Many of the arguments around fracking have been pitched towards workers, with promises of jobs, lower fuel bills and energy security. David Cameron has said 75-150,000 jobs are possible, while Cuadrilla has promised to create 50,000 jobs across the UK.

However Cornell Labor Institute research found that the Barnett Shale in Texas had created only 3,200 construction and energy jobs over ten years, while the Marcellus Shale had created no more than 10,000 new jobs.

Similarly, grand promises have been made about lower fuel bills, in the context of over 5 million people in the UK mired in fuel poverty (spending a tenth of their income on fuel bills). However an LSE report argues that because gas prices are segmented, with Britain an even more “liberalised” market than Europe, “it is unlikely that gas consumers would see much, if any, benefit in terms of reduced gas and electricity bills”. Energy analysts mostly believe fuel prices will go up in the coming decades, whatever happens with shale gas.

On energy security, there is no agreement as to how much shale gas can be extracted from the UK, particularly from the two main formations – the Bowland Shale in northern England and the Weald Basin in southern England. The LSE report suggests that even on the most optimistic assumptions, there is the equivalent of 2-14 years of domestic gas consumption — a long way from Times newspaper reports of 1,500 years of heating for every home in the UK.

So far UK trade unions have not done much about fracking. The TUC Congress 2012 passed a motion opposing it. The motion said: “The principle of precaution should be applied when developing new energies and the health of people and the environment should be put before profit.”

It originated from unions and community organisations in the North West. It stated: “The fracking method of gas extraction should be condemned unless proven harmless for people and the environment. This type of energy production is not sustainable as it relies on a limited resource.

“Until now, there is evidence that it causes earthquakes and water pollution and further investigation should be carried out before any expansion.” Unions have a vital role in opposing extreme energy and coalescing climate activists into a powerful movement.

Conclusions

Beyond supporting protests opposed to fracking, socialists have significant arguments and strategies to add. First, the wider political point is that the neoliberal energy regime makes tackling climate change harder.

Privately owned energy firms and bourgeois-state corporations run according to market imperatives mean that price signals prompt continued investment in fossil fuels – including extreme energy like shale gas and tar sands – at the expense of expanding less polluting sources such as renewables (and nuclear). Taking ownership and control of these capitalist giants is necessary, so that climate change can be mitigated to the extent necessary and in the time left.

Secondly private ownership and control of energy makes democratic oversight and accountability much harder. This is true at various scales, from getting a global agreement between states to tackle climate change, to government policies (like the Tory tax-breaks for shale), all the way down to local people in the North-West and South-East of England who find the likes of Cuadrilla fracking and preparing to frack without their say-so. Socialists need to advocate maximum democratic control over the economy and energy in particular.

Such demands have great resonance at present. In a ComRes poll for BBC 5 live last week, over two-thirds (69%) of those questioned thought energy companies should be nationalised, while a similar proportion (67%) support having more wind farms in their area. Their rationale was also clear: over three-quarters (77%) thought energy prices are set unfairly, while a quarter (25%) said they have put up with “unacceptably cold temperatures”.

What is needed is a mass working class-based climate movement to take up these issues. The labour movement has an irreplaceable role in outlining a sustainable energy policy, fighting for climate jobs and for democratic control at work and in communities over energy.

References

Broderick. J., et al, (2011) Shale gas: an updated assessment of environmental and climate change impacts. The Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester

Broderick, J., and Anderson, K. (2012) Has US Shale Gas Reduced CO2 Emissions? The Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester

Bassi, S. et al (2013) UK ‘dash’ for smart gas. Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, LSE

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