THE announcement of a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has been widely reported as a ban. It is no such thing. A moratorium imposes only a temporary halt, as the Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom made clear.
She insists that shale gas remains a ‘huge opportunity’ for the UK. This seems bizarre as both the economic and environmental case for fracking appears holed below the water line.
Fracking has generated heated debate in the media, especially since the Conservative Party in 2017 declared full support for fracked gas as a solution to energy needs.
Opposition focused on the threat of industrialisation of the countryside with hundreds of well pads supporting thousands of wells, many in proximity to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Government invited bids from the oil and gas industry for Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs), mostly in the Bowland shale area of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
The bridging argument makes no sense. We no longer produce energy from burning coal and approximately one third of UK energy needs are already met by renewable sources. It would take 10 years for the shale gas industry to be fully operational and, in the meantime, HGV movements, construction, drilling and myriad forms of pollution would devastate swathes of northern Britain. An adequate volume of shale gas would arrive far too late to assist a transition to a low carbon future.
So why has the Government announced a moratorium? Survey data shows that public opinion has hardened against fracking. Conservative Environment Network (CEN) polling in April 2019 revealed huge opposition, especially in 170-plus constituencies where there are PEDLs. Around 40 of these are marginals. Nationwide, opposition is above 80 per cent. Among Conservative voters in 2017, 74 per cent opposed fracking.
Support for onshore wind farms is typically over 80 per cent in marginal constituencies and 78 per cent of voters say ‘reducing CO2 emissions to zero as soon as possible’ is either ‘important’ or ‘very important’.
This data surely prompted the moratorium. Boris Johnson wants support from swing voters, so he adopts a tentative and partial rejection of this unpopular and destructive fossil fuel. He knows that earth tremors as well as air, light and water pollution, and massive industrialisation of the countryside, cannot be a vote winner.
The anti-fracking campaign has strengthened against a backdrop of growing public concern over climate change. The UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that a global shift away from hydrocarbon-based energy towards renewables is imperative if we are to avoid cataclysmic consequences from earth temperatures rising by more than 1.5C.
According to an overwhelming majority of climate scientists, anthropogenic (caused by human activity) global warming has accelerated rapidly in recent decades. Atmospheric change caused by CO2 release has brought melting of polar ice caps, rising sea levels, higher temperatures and extreme weather events, the latter frequently recorded in news broadcasts from around the world. Here severe flooding for many has occurred more than once, and in recent days in South Yorkshire.
The public are aware of these threats. Only a fool regards warmer summers and milder winters in Britain as an unalloyed benefit. With a general election on December 12, party positions on fracking will be in the spotlight. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party support an outright ban, while the Conservatives commit only to a moratorium, no doubt rejoicing that this is widely and wrongly reported as a ban.
The CEN polling shows the success of the anti-fracking campaign. The public accepts that climate change is real, and action must be taken to avoid devastating consequences. Brexit may dominate the election, but that is but a fly on a pig’s back compared with the fight against climate breakdown.
Any level of support for an entirely new UK fossil fuel industry demonstrates astonishing disregard for the health and wellbeing of the planet, its ecology and future generations. The next government should not only ban fracking entirely, but outlaw the importation of fracked shale gas from the USA.
Dr Simon Sweeney is a Senior Lecturer in International Political Economy and Business at the University of York.