The environmental hazards of fracking

11 September 2013

Interview with

Tony Juniper, University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

Kate - So, Mike there just now was saying that renewables aren't currently a realistic option because their output is so variable.  We're joined here in the studio by Dr. Tony Juniper who's an independent environmental campaigner.  Fracking protestTony, what would you say in response to that?

Tony -   We're nowhere near the point when intermittency is an issue for renewables in this country.  If you look at Denmark, they're already well over 20% of their power is coming from wind.  That country is one of the most competitive and strongest economies in the world.  It's not causing a problem there and it wouldn't cause a problem here.  If we got behind renewables in a way whereby, we were sending clear signals to the industry, driving investment into that sector, building up jobs, competitiveness for the UK, as some other countries are already doing.  We will face issues of course around renewables and intermittency if we get up to a higher level than 20%, 30%.  But then again, there are other renewable technologies that can supply us with power in ways that are much more secure in the sense of being predictable - tidal power for example, biomass energy, and also bear in mind that offshore wind in particular.  It's very rarely that this country has no wind anywhere around its coast.  Bear in mind also that we already have energy storage technologies.  That are the natural partners of things like offshore wind.  If we were serious about electric cars for example, battery technology would be storing power overnight when people are sleeping, the winds blowing offshore, cars are being charged up.  That's contributing to energy security and reducing our reliance on imported oil.  At the same time, as putting this country in a highly competitive position in terms of its access to future markets based on high technology.

Kate -   We heard from Aled a little bit earlier in the show and he was saying, it is possible.  We have got the technology.  We had a story a couple of weeks ago about new batteries for solar power, but it's just about the infrastructure that we currently have and how that we'd have to change that.  Monetarily, is that an option?

Tony -   Of course, it is.  It is a question of how we do it and how we plan for it.  Our infrastructure across the country in many sectors especially in energy, it's ancient, it's creaking, and it's falling apart in many respects.  We're retiring old generating plants in the form of coal stations.  We'll be changing parts of our grid.  We'll be therefore on the cusp of a major opportunity to modernise the country in ways that are not only going to be able to make us more secure in terms of our energy, but will create many, many tens of thousands of jobs.  And help to put us at the front edge of this industrial revolution which is going to be coming in the early part of the 21st century.  The world is going to be waking up to these green issues.  And actually, we're putting ourselves out of that game.  We're driving investment away and we're creating real uncertainty about where the future of energy lies in this country.

Kate -   I mean, wherever the future of the energy lies, we're currently looking at the moment at fracking this dash of a gas that is going to roll out across England.  What is the environmental problems?  Why are people protesting so much against fracking in particular?

Tony -   So, some of them have been mentioned by previous contributors.  One of course is the landscape impacts.  It is worth bearing in mind, the impacts to some of the stuff in the United States I was recently in West Texas and saw the very dense road map works that come with gas fracking because not only do you need the main well that fractures the rocks.  You need a network of subsidiary wells to be able to get the gas from the areas where the rock has been cracked.  And that can require up to 8 wellheads per square mile.  I don't think people have really understood the implications as yet, but I think once this starts to be done in this country, if we get to that point, I think there will be very serious public pushback.  If I was an investor in this technology right now, I'd be thinking very carefully about whether I really think this is going to happen.  There's already been a mention of the risks of water pollution.  Those risks can be managed, but there is always a risk there.  We have quite complex geology in this country, very sensitive aquatic habitats.  We rely a lot on ground water.  But the big thing for me is around the climate change contribution.  We are signed up to national legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050.  But I think if we do go hell for leather for shale gas, we would basically be tearing up the climate change targets that are already enshrined in national law and I think that would be a disaster.

Kate -   We're going to be looking into some of your concerns there, water contamination around with some experts a bit later on the show.  But surely, as with alternatives, we're talking about visual impact here.  Wind turbines are an eyesore that we hear people complaining all the time about them being in your back garden.

Tony -   I disagree.  Wind turbines are very beautiful and the opinion polls, one after the other, shows us that we have widespread public support, something like 80% of the people in this country support the expansion of renewables including wind.  I think they're very beautiful.  There is a vocal minority that's managed to whip up quite a lot of support in parliament to the point where the wind industry now has very mixed signals coming from government.  It's an interesting juxta-position of circumstances where we have people in government telling us we need to be regenerating, manufacturing, and building our industry here.  One of the growth industries where we have a real edge, not least because this country is described as the Saudi Arabia of wind.  We're trying to stifle that industry because of some, what I would regard, as minority concerns about visual impact.

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