Fracking is getting an awfully bad press at the moment. The recent protests at Cuadrilla’s drilling site in Balcombe saw the appearance, and indeed arrests, of everyone from former Green Party leaderCaroline Lucas to the daughter of former Kinks frontman Ray Davies Natalie Hynde to the former page 3 model Marina Pepper. Fracking is almost universally believed to be either dangerous or dirty or destructive. However, is it possible that all the negative hype has been overblown and that fracking may actually be a positive for the country?
The greatest illustration of the perceived negative side of hydraulic fracturing comes from the US. Viral videos have circulated of people in areas where fracking is widespread being able to set light to their drinking water. Josh Fox’s 2010 documentary Gasland was one of the first on the subject to receive widespread attention. Fox visited people affected by fracking in various US states and found that many have experienced chronic health issues directly linked to air pollution and the contamination of their drinking water. Many had received settlements, court injunctions or settlement monies from gas companies undertaking the fracking. Many of the issues raised in Gasland have formed the basis of the anti-fracking campaign in the UK. However, there is a very important feature of the film that tends to be ignored by British anti-fracking campaigners.
The latter stages of the film focus on Fox’s involvement in congressional subcommittee discussions on the “Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act” (the FRAC act). The FRAC act was proposed in an attempt to bring hydraulic fracturing under the federal regulation of the “Safe Drinking Water Act”. In 2005, Dick Cheney amended the Safe Drinking Water Act to specifically exclude hydraulic fracturing. Cheney also insured that firms performing hydraulic fracturing were immune from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and many other environmental regulations. As a result, fracking operations in the US are effectively immune from Environmental Protection laws. No such ruling has been made in the UK and as a result fracking firms will be subject to environmental regulations. However, anti-fracking campaigners tend to ignore this fact.
The anti-fracking campaign seems to claim that hydraulic fracturing is a modern experimental highly volatile process, the dangers of which are yet unknown. This is simply not the case. Hydraulic fracturing has been operated commercially since the 1940s. Claims of groundwater pollution as a result of hydraulic fracturing are heavily disputed. Not one aquifer in the US has proven to be polluted with either fracking fluid or methane as a direct result of hydraulic fracturing. According to British Scientist Matt Ridley, “Two recent peer-reviewed studies concluded that groundwater contamination from fracking is ‘not physically plausible’”. Ridley also argues that the water contamination illustrated in Gasland was entirely natural.
The main argument used by anti-fracking campaigners is that the gas produced by hydraulic fracturing is not environmentally friendly. What is rarely considered is the nature of the gas that we are currently using. North sea gas supplies are dwindling and Britain is increasingly reliant on imported gas. In the first half of 2013, Britain imported more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas. Although around 80% of Britain’s imported gas comes from European pipelines, an ever-increasing percentage of Britain’s gas supply is transported on large gas guzzling container ships usually coming all the way from Qatar.
Fracking has the potential to greatly benefit the British economy. David Cameron has promised that fracking will create as many as 70,000 jobs and produce enough gas to power Britain for at least fifty years, if gas extraction is restricted to only 10% of the total supply. As well as this, Cameron has said that energy firms have agreed to reinvest 1% of their revenue which, according to the Prime Minister, could result in “as much as £10m” going to communities near fracking operations. If this is true, great financial benefit could be brought to the UK whilst stabilising Britain’s gas supply and perhaps reducing gas prices.
It would seem that as long as fracking is well regulated and energy firms are kept to their word, hydraulic fracturing has the potential to reduce British gas prices and provide thousands of much-needed jobs as well as a desperately needed boost to the economy. Fracking is by no means without its faults and should not be considered a permanent solution to our energy troubles. The recent report by the IPCC made abundantly clear that humans are now unequivocally the dominant cause of global warming and changes desperately need to be made. But if fracking is prevented from going ahead, gas will continue to be consumed and imported, prices will continue to increase and Britain will be harmed.