• Help Put Fracking Back in the Box

    One thing it hasn’t done is suffer from a lack of exposure. Hydraulic fracturing, fracking; the bogeyman of environmentalists and just about anyone else who happens to share a deep concern about the myriad threats it poses came to many people’s attention during the course of last year. This was augmented late last spring when a public meeting was called in Victory Hall, Balcombe where the CEO of Cuadrilla - the principal firm proposing the process in the UK – was metaphorically ripped to shreds by a sceptical and justifiably worried mostly local audience.

    Fracking, for anyone who’s been out of the orbit of nearly every form of mass media for most of this year, is designed to access deposits of shale gas embedded in the rock formations deep beneath the ground. The process involves drilling down for hundreds of metres, then horizontally, then injecting a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals at pressures that have drawn comparisons with small nukes. This shatters the rocks, releasing the gas which then is carried back up to the surface, along with much of the chemically contaminated water and carcinogenic elements of the rocks themselves.

    The chemicals used include formaldehyde and methanol while the harmful rock matter can be comprised of anything from arsenic to radionuclides. The water is held in pools where, if it does not leak out, evaporates and releases these contaminants into the atmosphere. In the meantime as much as 70% of the water injected underground remains there. Nobody seems too sure what happens to it then; cold comfort when considering that it can take as much as 100 years for contamination of aquifers to become apparent. There is a clear risk from chemicals travelling up migrating fractures from the explosion site which is compounded by the danger posed by existing faults that can permeate geological layers that are otherwise meant to prevent movement of water. But really aquifers and their geology are incredible mysterious beasts; often little more is understood of how they work in any given area than where the springlines are.

    You could spend any amount of time reeling out the horror stories of ‘fracks’ gone wrong, though – to take a look at the America experience – ‘gone wrong’ implies a diversion from a course of better practice while the reality seems to be one of negligence so common it verges on the routine. Have a look at Josh Fox’s iconic film ‘Gasland’ and decide for yourself whether the process does or doesn’t present a huge risk to health. Consider too the words of a US House of Representatives investigative report which stated in 2011 that "companies are injecting fluids containing unknown chemicals about which they may have limited understanding of the potential risks posed to human health and the environment". They also said that more than 650 of the 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens or listed as hazardous air pollutants.

    But in the UK we’re being told things would be different – we’d have better environmental safeguards and the fracking fluids in particular would be better regulated – and it seems we’re being asked to give the industry the benefit of the doubt; a bit of a tall order considering there wasn’t even an Environmental Impact Assessment for Cuadrilla’s drilling undertaken in the UK last year. We’re being encouraged to think the arguments against the process are largely alarmist in the face of the huge boon our shale gas deposits could represent. And therein lies the apparent hook that shale gas holds; that however dire the setbacks and clearly quite evident risks, it appears to offer a great deal to those in government concerned with our energy security, to say nothing of helping curb emissions with a move from coal and oil. But due to methane emissions – a gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its effect on the climate, fracking is estimated to be between at least – and possibly twice – as bad as coal in this latter respect.

    One question that is often asked and which holds the key to anything like a sane way forward is, if coal and oil must be replaced and shale gas, even aside from its more dramatic drawbacks, only offers a quite modest percentage of what’s needed in the mix, what do we replace it with? I’ll leave aside for now the essential element of the need to rein in our energy consumption where it is tied into an industrial model we need to start to find our way beyond – it’s a huge subject that demands a great deal of attention. But meanwhile, the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report from Centre for Alternative Technology provides a blueprint for a way forward that encompasses such a ‘powerdown’ in addition to a strategy for more renewables. And Germany is proving that, even if problems of pricing are a factor at the moment, great strides can be made towards integrating renewables given a sympathetic and determined political climate. As for nuclear - given the extent of the disparities in the stories coming out of Japan - I can’t say I’m currently particularly convinced by anything its advocates have to say, without even getting onto the colossal expense and ‘issues’ with the waste.

    But as with nuclear, we are perhaps treating our current batch of representatives with a little too much credulity if we think it is simply a question of securing energy supplies. Make no mistake; the fracking industry is a predatory ghoul stalking our corridors of power, driven by the debt that spurred their advances in the U.S., seeking to curry favour and influence via the legion of lobbyists that are symptomatic of a wider political malaise. If that sounds a little too fantastic, consider just why we are being herded towards a ‘dash for gas’ that, when methane emissions are taken into consideration, whether or not that gas comes from shale, constitutes a kind of climatic hara-kiri (all gas wells leak; it’s simply a question of degree). It’s patently not a decision with clear regard of any kind towards our climate targets. And it’s more symptomatic of anything we’ve seen so far about how dangerously out of touch large parts of Westminster appear to be getting.

    Given that shale gas may have already been given the green light by the government this summer, that planning permission for drilling in staggeringly huge blocks of land across the country has been bought up or is in the process of being so, this is clearly no time for complacency. If hydraulic fracturing – and its twisted sister; coal bed methane – are given the go ahead, literally laying waste to vast swathes of our land and accounting for a likely plague of related health complaints the government will be showing complete contempt for what remains of the social contract in this country. It is in everybody’s interest then that these criminal proposals are relegated to the horror story sideshow of what-ifs where they belong.

    The irony though is that in a sense, fracking, in the extreme solution it suggests, might just be offering us a golden opportunity: if threats of a deteriorating climate haven't done it yet or remain a thing many are hardwired to ignore for as long as they can, perhaps the notion of contamination of something so fundamental as our water can provide the shove we all need to find our way towards a future that isn’t dictated by the industries that so surely would negate that very future itself. That opportunity is lent fresh hope by the examples of countries and states where common sense has prevailed and the industry has been recognised for the vampire it is. Come to London on the first of December, or set up a protest near you and help put a stake through that industry’s toxified heart.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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