Fracking: Let’s just end this nonsense

By Jon Crooks

I recently wrote to my Labour MP to express my serious concern that the government could soon overturn Lancashire Council’s locally made decision to reject fracking. Whilst I pointed out that such a decision would set a deeply worrying signal for future fracking decisions, the argument I was making in the main was around the principle of whether local councils should be able to make planning decisions like this without interference from Westminster.

My MP kindly responded and dedicated a couple of lines to say that she shared my concern that ministers may overturn locally made decisions to reject fracking.

However, she chose to dedicate the first four paragraphs of her response to a justification of her support for fracking itself. She was at pains to caveat that support, but nonetheless she did seem to be justifying it on the grounds that:

  1. 80% of our homes rely on gas for heating

  2. 30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.

  3. Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas

I have recently completed a good deal of research on the role of gas in the UK and so I wanted to respond to those three points. I took them in reverse order.

‘Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas’

I am familiar with the ‘energy trilemma’, which is made up of environmental sustainability, energy security and affordability. Let’s take affordability first. It has been well documented that even if we do find a sizable supply of gas under our feet, it would have little or no impact on the price of gas on the wholesale market. I would challenge anyone to convince me otherwise given how the wholesale market works.

So what we are really talking about here is an energy dilemma between energy security and environmental sustainability.

Let’s look at energy security next. First thing to mention is that we have been a net importer of gas for 12 years, as suggested, and nothing much has changed over the last 6 years. In fact, we were relying on a higher proportion of imported gas in the years 2010 – 2013 than over the last couple of years. Whilst one could raise an eyebrow at the thought of imported gas from Qatar, most of our gas comes from Norway who have significant reserves and are a close and friendly neighbour.

The fact of the matter is, the way the wholesale gas market works, we are simply buying contracts based on whatever is cheapest on that particular day, or even that particular second, based on a range of factors. The bottom line is that there is no perceived threat to the supply of gas on the European gas markets, it’s political spin.

What we are really talking about here is GDP. This simply comes down to a trade off between increasing GDP for UK plc vs. environmental impact. In this regard, on the second page of my MP’s letter she actually went on to say that:

“we need a clean, secure, low-carbon future in the UK not a dirty fossil fuel one. The government’s latest report states that the cost of gas generation in 2025 will be higher than the cost of both solar and onshore wind so we need to question why the government is trying to lock us in o a fossil fuel infrastructure for the next thirty five years rather than backing the clean technologies of the future.”

Yes, absolutely! She went on to mention jobs and environmental safeguards. Jobs will be generated in whatever energy sector we decide to pursue. There are no shortage of green jobs in clean energy.

In terms of environmental safeguards, let’s specifically talk about climate. You may have seen recent reports on figures – based on Met Office data – prepared by meteorologist Ed Hawkins of Reading University, which show that average global temperatures have already been more than 1C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38C in February and March.

Keeping within the 1.5C limit set in Paris in December will now be extremely difficult, say scientists, given these rises. These alarming figures will form the backdrop to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Geneva which have now commenced, where scientists have begun work on outlining ways to implement the climate goals set in Paris. Dates for abandoning all coal-burning power stations and halting the use of combustion engines across the globe – possibly within 15 years – are likely to be set.

You will have no doubt heard of Dr James Hansen from Columbia University, the former NASA scientist credited with first bringing the issue of climate change to the fore. In his blog earlier this year he spoke of some very bad news on atmospheric methane. He revealed as follows:

“Methane amount in the atmosphere was stable from 1999 to 2006, but growth resumed in the past decade and accelerated more sharply in the past two years. Although the reasons for resumed methane growth remain to be accurately quantified, the largest methane source is fossil fuel mining and leakage, and the United States seems to be the greatest contributor. The timing and location of renewed methane growth suggest hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations as the primary cause…”

He goes on to put the increased methane (which is far more potent a GHG than CO2) into context in terms of meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement. Hansen says:

“It had appeared in 2000 that, with a rising price on carbon, it might be conceivable to follow a course …which would yield a maximum global warming of about 1.5°C.  … the global GHG growth rate is now far above the 1.5°C scenario and diverging from it. So is it even conceivable that this growth trend can be reversed…? The answer is: we have no choice… we need to forgo the fruits of the “fracking” revolution. The signature of U.S. fracking on global methane is only too clear, including the added acceleration of the past two years in which 55,000 additional fracking wells were drilled…”

I don’t know about you, but ‘energy security’ (by which we mean a boost to UK GDP) doesn’t seem quite as important in the context of such a planetary emergency.

‘30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.’

A report by the UK Energy Research Council in February 2016 suggested that there was only limited scope for new gas fired power stations. The report argues that after 2025, if the carbon targets are to be cost-effectively met, the use of gas in power stations would need to decline, especially if they were not fitted with CCS. This would raise questions as to the economic viability of investing in these gas-fired stations, rather than low- or zero-carbon power generation, in the first place.

The UKERC report concluded that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system.

‘80% of our homes rely on gas for heating’

The influential think tank Policy Exchange, in a recent report, said that lack of progress on the decarbonisation of heating could “make or break the UK’s carbon plans”. It suggested a new strategy based on a more balanced set of priorities and technologies – incorporating substantial improvements in energy efficiency, more efficient gas appliances, greener forms of gas (synthetic gas or ‘green gas’ rather than natural gas obtained through ‘fracking’), and alternative heat technologies could deliver an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Nick Hurd MP himself in the Paris Agreement climate change debate on 7th September hinted that the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, due out by the end of the year, will focus on reducing emissions from heating and transport.

There can be no doubt therefore that demand for gas in domestic heating will have to fall quickly over the coming decades, before any new source of gas becomes available from ‘fracking’, even if ‘fracking’ is actually viable.

I finished by asking my MP to now please join Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn and Greater Manchester Mayor candidate, Andy Burnham in calling for a ban on fracking. It is deeply unpopular, a huge distraction to what we should be focusing on, it will take years to set up this whole new fossil fuel industry, which could prove to be very costly to our climate and our commitments under the Climate Change Act, whilst failing to deliver cheaper bills.

Gas is already plentiful on the European wholesale market (indeed the world can’t burn what has already been accounted for and remain within 2C of global warming) and demand in the UK will continue to fall as we decarbonise our electricity and domestic heating sectors.

I asked my Labour MP not to side with the Tories, who are far too close to the fossil fuel industry, and instead support a clean energy future instead and come out in favour of a ban on fracking.

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Who benefits from fracking?

By Jon Crooks, published on The News Hub on 12th February 2015 and Campaign for the North blog on 17th February 2015

The question was asked last week at a Guardian Live event in Manchester entitled ‘Fracking – friend or foe?’ On the panel was Dr Nick Riley, formerly Team Leader for Unconventional Gas at the British Geological Society and clearly an enthusiastic supporter of fracking. He tried to look sincere as he answered that it was “for the people”. He was drowned out by laughter.

The room was inevitably filled with concerned citizens from around the north west, and there’s no doubt from the comments and questions that here it very much feels like fracking is for the benefit of the fracking industry and central government and not for the people at all. As one member of the audience put it: it feels like it is being “done to us”.

Lancashire is the Front Line in this Battle

Lancashire has been at the forefront of the UK’s nascent shale gas industry and two Cuadrilla sites on the Fylde may soon become the test bed for the so called shale gas revolution.

Small earthquakes caused by Cuadrilla’s activity in 2011 saw a moratorium put in place, but once it was lifted the company submitted plans for up to four wells at each of two sites at Preston New Road and Roseacre wood. Each of these sites would see hundreds of fracks – the high pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals – to see how much gas can be released.

Planning officers last month concluded that the increase in night-time noise from the operations would be too great at both sites and that heavy truck movements would involve a “severe” increase in traffic, particularly HGVs. The decision by the council was therefore deferred for eight weeks to allow for further public consultation, but this has angered some people as it gives Cuadrilla more time to tinker with their application and manipulate the planning system.

Removal of Democracy

Many at the debate in Manchester last week argued that there has been a removal of democracy from the whole process from start to finish. As one Lancashire councillor who was in the audience pointed out, plans to introduce fracking in the UK wasn’t in any of the election manifestos of the three main parties in the lead up to the last General Election, yet all three are supportive of this new fossil fuel industry in some form.

The coalition government came to power promising localism. But when they don’t like local decisions, they change the rules. The humongous ‘Infrastructure Bill’ will in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent. A new quango will be set up, to be known as the Homes and Communities Agency, where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just two inspectors will control many of our planning decisions. This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.

Also part of this enormous piece of legislature is the Trespass Law, which allows drilling beneath our homes without our permission.

Whilst it seemed at first that Labour would only back the bill if the Tories agreed to their strict regulatory protections, these protections were ultimately watered down. The new protections will rule out fracking in certain protected areas such as national parks, but it is not yet clear if this will include all the areas initially intended. Groundwater source areas should also be protected, but this is clearly not a priority for government or the opposition as the definition was weakened in the final draft by removing reference to Groundwater Source Protection Zones 1-3, as defined by the Environment Agency.

In any case, these new protections will not effect Cuadrilla’s two sites in Lancashire. So now ministers need to explain why if fracking is too risky in our National Parks, how is it safe for the rest of the UK? As Louise Hutchins at Greenpeace UK has said, why is it “too risky for the South Downs, but perfectly safe in the Lancashire countryside?”

The Infrastructure Bill

by Jon Crooks

air pollution

As the Lima climate talks enter their second week, MPs gather for the second reading of the government’s Infrastructure Bill. This bill, as Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, points out is written in a way that will lull you into a stupor. But the contents of the infrastructure bill she says should snap you wide awake.

The main elements of the bill are:

Roads

Air pollution is now the world’s chief killer. In 2012, it was the source of around 7 million premature deaths. In the UK, it has reached illegal highs and takes the lives of 29,000 people every year. Today, a new report from the environmental audit committee (of which Caroline Lucas is a member) dubs air pollution “a public health imperative”, and concludes that to save lives “urgent change is needed”.

But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention anything about clean air targets. Instead, it emphasises big road investment to the tune of £15bn. This includes 1,300 miles in new traffic lanes.

Road traffic is the primary contributor to air pollution in most parts of the UK. And new roads  don’t cut congestion. Even government studies show that. They simply lead to more jams, exacerbate emissions and erode our countryside. Increasing major road capacity simply stimulates a further growth in traffic, which means that more road schemes are needed etc etc. In the long run, congestion returns and pollution is greater as total traffic volume increases. The main beneficiaries are road building companies.

Labour is outraged. Not from any climate or health concern – it simply sulked that the government was all talk, and chastised it for failing to invest sooner – not just for roads but for airport expansion too.

Earlier this month, Department for Transport figures showed that local sustainable transport schemes returned £5 for every £1 spent. Clearly therefore, our £15bn would be far better used repairing existing roads, improving footpaths and adding cycle paths and on initiatives to boost public transport, walking and cycling.

Oil & Gas

This year, David Cameron dubbed climate change one of “the greatest threats” we faced. Just yesterday Ed Miliband proclaimed tackling climate change as “the most important thing” he could do in politics. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t mention climate change. Whilst the science is clear that to avoid catastrophic climate change about 80% of our existing fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, this bill includes a new duty to maximize the recovery of oil and gas – just when we’re duty-bound to reduce it.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise as we know that the government’s on a shale crusade and the infrastructure bill paves the way for this whole new fossil fuel industry. The bill awards the fracking industry sweeping new powers to run pipelines under private land without the consent of owners. It’s opposed by 75% of us, but what does public opinion matter?

Meanwhile, the UK’s renewables industry struggles to get a word in edge ways. The bill rightly talks a lot about jobs creation – the Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts fracking could generate up to 32,000. But despite the government’s cuts, the renewables industry already supports more than 100,000 jobs and a nationwide energy efficiency programme could create an additional 108,000 jobs every year between 2020 and 2030.

To be fair, the bill does give a nod to community energy ownership rights – a small step in the right direction. But we should be taking giant leaps. Fracking has a limited lifespan. We’d receive a far richer return on our billions, economically and in energy security by going all out for homegrown renewables and energy efficiency. This would create jobs, slash emissions and cut fuel bills.

The UK has some of Europe’s least energy-efficient housing – energy efficiency should be our number one infrastructure priority. But the infrastructure bill doesn’t even mention it.

Public sector land assets

The proposed bill will also in some cases end the rights of councils in granting or denying planning consent.

The bill would permit the transfer of up to 90% of brown field sites (previously developed sites that have become vacant) to the Homes and Communities Agency (a new quango) where Eric Pickles (and his successors) and just 2 inspectors will control planning decisions.

From the government’s perspective, it’s all about speeding up planning decisions and avoiding the delay caused by local ownership of the decision making process. Is this because the landed classes would rather new things be built on our land than theirs? The fact that The Queen is exempt from the Bill despite being the largest landowner in the world, surely confirms this.

This government promised localism, but is delivering a further shift of power from local to central government.

 

First posted on http://www.thebeardyguy.com on 8 December 2014

Fracking

David Cameron and George Osborne have recently declared that the government is “going all out for shale” with councils & homeowners to be effectively bribed in order to shore up support for fracking despite concerns about the use of high-pressure water and chemicals and the effects on our countryside, communities and of course Climate Change.

Even Labour’s Tom Greatrex, the shadow energy minister, said:

“Gas will remain an important part of our energy mix in the future, and if shale gas can replace our rapidly depleting North Sea reserves it could help improve our energy security. It is right that any communities that host nationally significant energy infrastructure are able to share in its rewards.”

My concern is that many of the arguments for fracking have been discredited, whilst the environmental concerns remain.

One argument for fracking is that it will bring down energy prices. However, Lord Browne, the former BP boss who is now chairman of Cuadrilla as well as a non-executive director inside the civil service, has said:

“We are part of a well-connected European gas market and, unless it is a gigantic amount of gas, it is not going to have material impact on price.”

Meanwhile, analysts at the City firm Brewin Dolphin also poured scorn on Cameron and George Osborne for over-hyping the potential impact of shale in Britain.

“We believe the shale industry is unlikely to produce commercial volumes of gas until the end of this decade and that it is unlikely to have a meaningful impact on gas prices…”

“This is due to two reasons; first, commercially available volumes are likely to be significantly lower in the UK than in the US, and second, if UK shale is successful, exploration companies could export the gas to achieve higher prices…”

Another argument is that it will create jobs. The Institute of Directors has predicted that the shale industry could create 74,000 direct and indirect jobs within 15 years, but the Civitas thinktank points to the mistakes made in the development of the UK’s offshore wind industry with some 90% of contracts for prestige projects such as the London Array – the world’s largest offshore wind farm, close to the Kent coastline – being placed abroad. It’s owned by a consortium without any British involvement.

The scope for a repeat exists with shale. There are 2,000 onshore land rigs with 500 trained shale teams working in the US, while there are only 77 rigs and 10 fracking crews in Europe. The North Sea oil industry is already suffering from soaring wages and other costs owing to skill shortages and it is not clear who would be on the front line of any British shale revolution.

Environmentalists remain solidly opposed to extraction on the basis of safety. Test drilling by Cuadrilla produced the Blackpool earthquakes and there are still concerns about fracking chemicals leaking into water supplies.

Friends of the Earth says the UN environment programme has warned that…

“…fracking may result in unavoidable environmental impacts even if [gas] is extracted properly”.

Dave Timms, energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth says:

“We should not be encouraging the further extraction and burning of oil and gas when what we need is the rapid deployment of new low-carbon technologies”.

He’s right.

Greenpeace climate campaigner Lawrence Carter says:

“Total, a French company who can’t frack in their own country because the French government has stopped the French countryside being ripped up, have now turned their sights on the UK countryside, where the UK government seem happy to allow the industrialisation of our green and pleasant land. The UK government seem deaf to the risks fracking poses to our environment and local communities and are pushing ahead with selling off two-thirds of Britain for drilling without a public mandate.”

This brings me to the piece in The Guardian yesterday, which focuses on the really big issue of Climate Change. It starts by telling us that global greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise by nearly a third in the next two decades, putting hopes of curtailing dangerous climate change beyond reach, and this is from a new report by BP!

It goes on to say that shale gas will account for a rising proportion of the growth in energy in the years to 2035, but its use will not cause a decline in greenhouse gases.

This pours cold water on proponents of shale gas who have argued that its use will cut emissions. Burning gas produces much less CO2 than burning coal, but the effect of a huge rise in shale gas exploration will not ameliorate the increases in emissions that scientists say will take the world to dangerous climate change.

Proponents of the fuel have argued that shale gas can counteract dependence on coal. But while shale gas use has increased dramatically, particularly in the US, global emissions have continued to rise as the coal that would otherwise have been used has been exported elsewhere.

Christof Ruehl, BP chief economist, said that fuel switching had little impact on overall emissions. Coal use globally had risen to record levels, even as shale gas had risen.

This news that such a move will not cut overall emissions takes away a key plank in the arguments put forward by David Cameron, George Osborne and the shale companies.

BP in its global energy outlook said gas would take a 27% share of global energy consumption by 2035, with a similar share for coal, oil, and an amalgamated low-carbon sector including nuclear, hydro, wind and sun.

BP predicts that global emissions will rise 29% by 2035. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that emissions must peak by 2020 to give the world a chance to avoid a further two degrees of warming, beyond which the effects of climate change become catastrophic and irreversible.

Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, said:

“The case for shale gas is crumbling. Experts say it won’t lead to cheaper fuel bills, and now BP says it won’t cut carbon emissions either. Follow the PM’s logic and we’d be punching thousands of holes in our countryside only to further add to climate change and continue with sky-high bills.

Instead of going all out for shale, the prime minister should focus on the real answers to the energy challenges we face: energy efficiency and renewable power.”

Finally, politicians must consider the views of the public. A new opinion poll for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME) found that 47% of people would be unhappy for a gas well site using fracking to open within 10 miles of their home, compared with just 14% who said they would be happy.

The biggest concerns for the people polled included fears of damage to the local environment, the associated noise and disruption, fears over the chemicals used and health risks, as well as fears that drinking water might be contaminated.

Tim Fox, head of energy and environment at the IME, said:

“These poll results suggest that simply offering money to local councils and communities is not enough to convince the public about the benefits of fracking for gas.”

The Guardian carried out the first UK nationwide poll on shale last summer and found people split down the middle, 40% in favour of shale drilling in their area, 40% against, with 20% unsure. The IME poll suggests attitudes to shale are hardening rather than softening.

Originally posted on thebeardyguy.com on 16 January 2014