Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Fracking Debate

(This was my presentation to the Debating Society of Manchester University speaking against the motion "This house supports fracking". I pretty much ad libbed on the night, but this was what I meant to say. We won the debate though) 

Hello I am Martin Porter from Frack Free Greater Manchester. I graduated as an  Astrophysicist, work as a Social Worker and now speak against fracking, which is an unusual career progression.

Anyway, fracking. Fracking is an unconventional oil. Conventional oil has peaked or is about to peak and, like alcoholics in a pub that is about to run dry, we are now looking for unconventional sources to feed our addiction; tar sands, deep-water and arctic oil and fracking for shale gas.

Basically it’s about getting oil that is not stored in porous rock. Instead of just sticking in a pipe and sucking it out, fracking involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground to force the rock apart to free the hydrocarbons trapped within.

Fracking is a process that has evolved in the last sixty years, but a modern frack has as much in common with one from 1940s as a Spitfire has with the Space Shuttle. High volume, high pressure fracking has only been technically possible since 1997 and has been carried out commercially for only a decade. A modern frack uses fifteen times the pressure, and several hundred times the volume of fluid, as one in the 1940s, although at least they don’t use napalm as a fracking fluid any more.

But before we talk about fracking, we need to talk about Climate Change.

Climate Change is the issue of our generation. It will affect the politics, economics and geography of the age we will live through. If we get this issue right the future will be eternally grateful to us. If we get it wrong we may not have a future, at least not as an advanced civilisation.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has shown that climate change is unequivocally caused by humans and that unchecked it poses a grave threat to us all. This view is the consensus of science and there is now no scientific body that does not accept this. Even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists is no longer sceptical.
The problem is real and it is imminent. Tropical storms like Haiyan, which devastated the Philippines last year, are the skirmishers ahead of an army of so called ‘natural’ disasters that will sweep the world. In the future it won’t just be parts of Somerset flooding, but all of Bangladesh. It won’t just be the Middle East where drought causes famine and then civil war, but most of Africa and Asia.
Whilst we mostly ignore this problem we are quietly passing important climate tipping points. The oceans will warm and release their carbon dioxide, rainforests will burn and die and peat uplands, like those round Manchester, will stop being carbon sinks and become carbon emitters. It is now quite possible that no matter how we generate our energy in future, nobody here today will see a year in which atmospheric CO2 levels falls.
But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless, but it does mean we don’t need fracking. 
Fracking will contribute to climate change, eventually, but the main problem is that it is the major roadblock to our dealing with the problem. This is because we have this crazy notion that fracking can be a “window fuel”, a bridge between our current dependence on coal and a future of renewable energy.
There are two problems with this.
Firstly it’s not clear if fracked gas is even better than coal. At the point of combustion gas burnt in a new power station produces half the carbon dioxide of coal burnt in a smokey old one. 
One problme is that the soot from coal, although bad for your lungs, reflects sunlight and so partly counteracts global warming.
But the main problem is fugitive methane emissions. 

Fracked gas is methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas. It does not remain in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide, but whilst it is there it is 86 times more potent than CO2. This means that if just 3.2% of the fracked gas leaks into the atmosphere then fracking is actually worse than coal for climate change.
What the leakage rate actually is is a hot topic. A report using industry data showed leakage rates as being quite low, but one in Colorado showed rates of between 4% and 9%, and an even more recent one in Pennsylvania showed even higher leakage rates of 100 to 1000 times previous estimates.
But even if fugitive methane isn’t a problem, fracking is still a high carbon fuel, sixteen times higher than wind or solar.
The second problem is more obvious. Renewable energy is here, it makes up 12% of energy generation capacity now and is continuing to increase despite a hostile government. Plenty of countries to a lot better.
Fracking though does not yet exist. There is unlikely to be any commercial fracking in this country until 2020. Peak production is not likely to be reached until 2025, even if all goes well.
How can you use something that doesn’t exist as a bridge to something that does?
Now there are plenty of other reasons to oppose fracking.
There is the vast amount of clean water that goes into a frack and the equally vast amounts of contaminated water that comes out. There are alternatives energy sources to gas, but we have no alternative to water. In parts of Texas the taps run dry because the water has been used for fracking.

There is the risk of contamination of groundwater, either from spills or from well lining cracking, for which there is growing evidence from the USA. We don't usually drink our groundwater directly in this country, but Robinson's brewery draws it's water from the local aquifer.

There is the growing evidence of health problems associated with fracking.

There is the industrialisation of the countryside that would have to happen. Grant Shapps, Tory Party Chairman, described a fracking site as being about the size of an ordinary house. As we’re talking the area larger than a football pitch with an eighty foot tower I can only assume his house is a little bigger than mine. To the visual intrusion we have lights, noise and air pollution, mainly from a 15,000hp engine running 24 hours a day, and up to fifty lorries in and out daily.

There is the unreality of the scale of operations needed to produce the amount of energy claimed for fracking.Eagle Ford field in Texas, the best field in the USA, involved 217 fracking rigs drilling three and half thousand wells. At this density even the little Vale of Edale in the Peak District would get thirteen well pads. Eagle Ford would have supplied just 20% of the UK's energy needs. I just can't see fracking at that intensity here.

There is the concern that regulations, which might reduce some of these risks, are inadequate. The government talks about 'world class regulation' but lobbying by the UK resulted in the EU opting out of applying regulations to fracking that will apply to conventional wells.

There are concerns about our geology, which is more complicated than the USA. Here the
rock beneath our feet is heavily faulted, which is a problem. So far only one well in the UK has actually been fracked - the one near Blackpool that caused the earth tremor. The quake certainly worried people, but the earth moving for you may not be the main problem when you frack. Faults mean there is a path that fracking fluid can use to get from where it was put to where we don't want it to be. Already Chevron, no wimps when it comes to trashing the environment, have pulled out of Poland on the grounds of "too complex" geology.

Then there are concerns about whether an underfunded Environment Agency can regulate a fly-by-night industry like fracking even if wanted to.

And so on.

But if fracking was available here and now and if it really was a low carbon fuel we might accept some of those risks.

But it isn’t.

There is no way that we can bring a brand new fossil fuel online in the middle of the next decade and still keep Climate Change to below two degrees by the end of the century. No way. We need renewable energy as soon as possible. The climate cannot wait for us to ride out two decades of fracking boom and bust first.

So let me give you another reason to oppose fracking. This is a campaign we can win. You’ve seen the opposition to fracking at Barton Moss, you’ve seen the march we had in the city center a couple of months ago. You may have seen the protests at Balcombe last summer. You may be aware of the camps in Cheshire and Nottinghamshire now.

The city investors are getting nervous. Industry consultants KPMG, who don’t usually see eye-to-eye with people like me, are sceptical. They talk about "tremendous reputational and regulatory hurdles", "high costs", "financial risk", and "extended development periods". This is all industry code for “careful you don’t lose your shirt”.

The Tory shires are getting nervous. Two thirds of the country is potentially at risk of fracking and
whilst they might not mind it in our back yard, they don’t want it in theirs.
Fracking is the last gasp of the fossil fuel dinosaurs, a final, desperate argument for business as usual when all the evidence is that we need a paradigm shift away from fossil fuels. A better future is possible, but fracking stands in the way.

That's why I oppose this motion.

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