Should the UK explore fracking?

Is fracking an energy source the UK should explore? Or is it a risk too far?
11 September 2013

Interview with 

Aled Jones, Anglia Ruskin University, and Justin Hayward, CIR Strategy


Kate -   So, we now know what fracking is, but why has there been such a debate about it?  To find out, I met up with Aled Jones, Director of Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University and Justin Hayward,DirectorDrilling warning sign of CIR Strategy Consultancy.  Aled began by explaining why the UK is currently so keen to explore fracking.

Aled -   So, lots of different reasons and global trends that could play into the reason we or the government is very enthusiastic, the main one being, energy security and rising prices globally of energy.  So, in their mind, the way of doing that is to try and find more locally sourced fossil fuels.

Justin -   Yeah, I agree there is the problem of rising prices of energy globally.  From a perspective of business, this is another opportunity for entrepreneurs and industrialists to go out and extract mineral resources which... they can do that for profit, whilst also helping the energy security problem.  And also, to put downward pressure on the prices of energy for consumers.

Kate -   So, we're looking to fill that energy up at the moment.  Aled, you mentioned 'in their mind' it's a really good ideas - that implies you've got some reservations.  What are the potential problems with fracking?  Why are we seeing so many protests?

Aled -   So, I think there's a number of different issues and there are a number of reasons for people protesting.  The reason people go out on the streets in places like Balcombe is a blight on their landscape.  Now, they're not huge sciences but the UK is not used to having oil drilling, gas drilling sites around where people live.  So, it's very unusual.  People are much more used to seeing that in the US.  However, there are then additional pressures around local communities in particular.  So, water availability and potential water contamination and potentially earthquakes, although they may be minor.  So, there's all those environmental problems that could be fairly significant especially in places like Sussex where there is already water stress, so no question about it,y ou can do other things.  You can stop farming.  You can get people to be much more efficient.  But there's an issue around gas as part of that solution and whether actually that does do anything with prices as well.  So, there's the economic argument which doesn't really stack up when you look at the UK, how big it is and how much gas we're going to have.

Kate -   Justin, you mentioned that it's all about economics and businesses getting this new opportunity.  Is this just a case of big business coming into contact with sort of rural areas that it isn't used to in the UK?

Justin -   If you look back 3 decades or so, there were lots of mines being mined for coal.  So, we do have a history of activity on the land.  Onshore wind has been pushed strongly by some quarters, particularly the government and as Aled alluded to, that's potentially more of a blight on the environment than fracking would be because again, as he mentioned, the footprint of a fracking site is relatively small.  You start with a slightly higher tower for literally a few weeks and then it comes down to something that's quite often included by the trees or around the site.

Kate -   Aled mentioned these other concerns - earthquakes, water contamination - that people have.  Do those play a part or is your reckoning that these protests are just based on what we can see?

Justin -   Again, in our conferences, we've people like Lord Oxburgh who's an eminent geophysicist and from Durham University, Professor Richard Davies.  Both of whom are experts on the fracking.  As I understand it from their presentations that they've given, the risks of water contamination and earth tremors in particular are very low.  There can be other problems which are sort of much further down the track to do with 'how do you decommission these many sites which you will have used to exploit fracking?'  So, it could be comparable with tin mining in Cornwall.  Did it blight the environment or not in that area and this could be a similar to a result.   But actually, if you look at the case of coal, there are some quarry sites for example the Eden project which have done wonderful things with sites which are formally then mines.  I think overall, the environmental regulations are sorts of things that local people worry about - those people that are accused of nimbyism.  Those regulations are much tighter than they used to be.

Kate -   Aled, do you want to come back on that?  Are there regulations going to keep everything in check?

Aled -   So, we do have much stronger regulations than in the US.  So, President Bush changed the regulation so fracking was takwn out of it.  In the UK, it's true the regulations are much stronger.  However, any minor accident and we know the oil and gas industry don't have a brilliant track record of never having accidents.  So, if you look at somewhere like Sussex, any accident will take out their groundwater.  So, that has a huge devastating local economic impact.  So, the possibility of an accident is always going to be there.  It doesn't matter how far you minimise it.  The companies aren't going to spend enough to get rid of that because it will just make it totally uneconomic.  It doesn't matter how many tax incentives the UK government put in place.  The other issue is then the climate change issue as well.  So, the fact that we already have enough carbon in fossil fuels, that if we burned it all, then climate change all the targets, we just can't meet them.  So, the climate change bill in the UK, the stuff we already have, we can burn all of that already because of the climate change.  So, why are we looking for more gas?  Why are we not investing in the clean energy that we can use under the current regulations?  So, either we change the regulations and say we don't care about climate change or we are taking stuff out of the ground, incentivising private companies to make a short term profit, which won't help the UK national security because they will sell to the highest bidder, in return for a devastating climate.

Kate -   Aled, you work for a sustainability institute.  Can these cleaner energy alternatives realistically fill that energy gap?

Aled -   If they receive the same amount of investment and focus as fossil fuel, and the sort of tax incentives that they're getting then yes, it requires a whole change in our national grid infrastructure to be able to cope with different availability.  But there's absolutely no reason why we wouldn't be able to have huge offshore wind, large scale tidal, Severn barrage, lots of different sorts of technologies.  But we need all of them and we need to be focusing on that sort of investment, having a short term gap in the amount of gas in the UK is at best, 20 years and that's been the best estimates from the gas industry.  It's probably much lower than that.  So, it's not even giving us a long time to do something else.  We should be focusing on that now.

Justin -   Well, if the opportunity in fracking is small then of course, it really has a triggered effect on global climate change and I would then believe that entrepreneurs and industrialists should be allowed to go ahead and extract and develop the resources, the small resources that are available.  If it's a relatively large amount of gas and there are indications as they said that we could have 2 decade's worth, I think there are figures that show that it may be several decades worth, then this is all useful in helping us address energy security issues.  And indeed, to give consumers the choice to buy local lower cost energy.  There's an immutable law of economics which is that, although it is suggested the total decrease in prices even if you have large amounts of shale gas extracted viably is small, supply and demand of economic suggests that there's a downward pressure on the prices.


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