Hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is the process by which shale gas is extracted from tightly-held deposits located deep underground. Although it is a low-cost and low-carbon energy source, there is strong public opposition. In this article we use the ethical cycle to argue both sides of the debate and propose a solution to the moral problem: What should the UK government really do in regard to fracking authorisation given its duties of public welfare and environmental care? Forge ahead or reconsider?
Let’s look at cold facts. Fracking equals not only energy independence, but also lower gas and electricity prices and an overdue end to the dirty coal age. Gas, when used to make electricity, produces less than one third of the CO2 emissions of coal and doesn’t produce particulate or ash when burned. By displacing coal from the UK’s energy mix, it will massively reduce CO2 emissions and the country’s carbon footprint. Gas really is a clean fuel that can make our air measurably healthier.
Article 25 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing…” Are we not members of the United Nations?
Then what kind of a just and civilised society allows families to spend more than 10% of its income keeping their houses adequately warm and illuminated? Forced to choose between food and warmth. What a wretched existence, and this in 2016! For these people, global warming would be a blessed relief, not an outcome to be avoided at all costs.
What kind of a progressive and modern society allows its pensioners to freeze to death in the darkened living rooms of their own homes? How many pensioners do you suppose we are talking about? The Office for National Statistics knows: in the winter of 2014/2015, it was forty-four thousand, a 21st century record. Forty-four thousand lives brought to a premature end because their pension money, money for which they had worked so hard their whole lives, was insufficient to pay their basic bills.
The effect of Britain being able to access 540 years’ worth of clean natural gas is that energy bills will be significantly lower. This means less financial pressure on low income families and far fewer winter deaths amongst our pensioners.
Sticking to the status quo is simply immoral. It means importing gas all the way from the continental east, putting vast sums of money into the hands of land-grabbing despots and oligarchs. It means importing it on ships from countries that treat women as economy-class citizens, banned from formal education and denied basic freedoms. All because we don’t want to drill a few discreet boreholes on our own soil. Wise up: it’s an absurdity.
These issues are here in the present day; we aren’t waiting for hockey-stick predictions to come true. Let us put an end to this sophistry and admit that this great untapped natural resource is the utilitarian solution to very serious problems blighting all too many lives. Let’s kick off the fracking revolution and liberate ourselves from the shackles of high energy prices and the ongoing outrages of winter deaths and fuel poverty.
Fracking is an issue with a wide range of stakeholders and interests. The UK government isn’t only concerned with reducing energy bills and moving toward self-dependent energy production, it must also meet the ambitious 1.5°C climate targets agreed in Paris and ensure the safety and well-being of its citizens. Energy companies must appease their shareholders by increasing production in a profitable way, but even their historically pro-fossil fuel lobby Energy UK has spoken out against further investment in high-carbon technologies. Local residents have rightly raised public health concerns against fracking.
Contamination of drinking water has been reported and some American states have seen a significant increase in seismic activity since the fracking boom. Energy users may want a decrease in bills but most now agree that this shouldn’t be at the expense of public safety.
While proponents of fracking dispute water contamination claims, studies linking the two continue to be published. What cannot be disputed are the visual impact on the local environment and the strain on local infrastructure. There is also the undeniable fact that burning gas still produces CO2 and contributes to global warming. Arguing that shale gas will contribute less greenhouse gases than coal deploys deliberately deceiving black & white options for action. Do renewable technologies not have a place in this debate?
In this case there are four possible strategies available to the UK government: provide no investment to the energy industry; fully invest in fracking; split money between fracking and renewables or fully invest in renewables. Clearly the first option is completely untenable with climate commitments and the volatility of reliance on foreign fuel. A full investment in fracking serves only to satisfy self-dependent energy production; claims of cheaper fuel and electricity are a fallacy: greater volumes of gas will simply be assimilated by the continental market. Some people may be inclined to lean towards the third option. Perhaps further research into the dangers of fracking to minimise its effects on residents and delaying a full move toward costly renewable energy will work? However, this strategy fails to consider that the cost of renewables will not fall without sufficient investment. The apparent compromise is merely an excuse to continue the country’s masochistic love affair with fossil fuels.
While trying to quantify fracking’s environmental and socio-economic impacts of drinking water contamination, increased seismic activity, strained local infrastructure and global warming contribution may seem necessary to finally reach a conclusion to this debate, there is a simpler way. The argument for fracking stated as a universal maxim is essentially: short-term cost savings (fictional) outweigh short & long-term environmental and public health concerns (real). This is no universal argument and fracking is no way to solve one of humanity’s greatest challenges. Renewables investment is needed now.
Christopher Shorts, Shudan Tan
Tom Morgan, Junqi Zhang