26/07/2013 12:46 BST | Updated 25/09/2013 06:12 BST

Fracking Isn't a Fairytale, It's a Nightmare

There has been grave concern in the US about the chemicals used in fracking, which don't have to be declared there. We can only hope for more transparency on the issue of water contamination from fracking in the UK.


Belief in "fairydust" - a magical solution to our energy needs - has been far too prevalent among far too many of our political leaders in recent months.

Fracking - an extreme form of gas extraction that literally means breaking up the ground under our feet, our homes, our fields - has been regarded with an almost mystical awe, a fervent belief that this can solve all of our problems, from fuel poverty to manufacturing decline, keeping the lights on to providing jobs.

For some, like the Lib Dem Energy and Climate Secretary Ed Davey, it's personal. He has said he "loves" shale gas. London Mayor Boris Johnson admits he doesn't know if it will work, but he wants to get fracking anyway.

But today, as anti-fracking activists again attempted to block the delivery of machinery used to drill for shale oil at a site in Balcombe, East Sussex, and the facts about the natural costs, and financial costs, of fracking become clear, the "fairydust" is being shown to be thoroughly unmagical - in fact potentially disastrous, for our local and global environment, for our energy bills, and for our entire economic future.

First, consider the local environment. A study by Bloomberg found that to get the equivalent of 10 years' worth of North Sea gas, based on average US well yields, would require between 10,000 and 20,000 wells. They wouldn't be evenly spread across Britain - so some areas would find themselves packed with wells - packed into an already crowded landscape. (This map gives an idea of the areas most likely to be affected.) A still fairly green and pleasant land would become an industrial site, with huge impacts on tourism and farming, not to mentions people's lives.

Each one of those wells would require at least a million gallons of water to operate (UK Water, representing the nation's water suppliers has expressed grave concerns both about where this water will come from and the risk of contamination of drinking water supplies). The National Farmers Union has also expressed concern about the industry causing extra "water stress". And it would require thousands of lorry movements - lorry movements down narrow country lanes, through villages and towns.

There has been grave concern in the US about the chemicals used in fracking, which don't have to be declared there. We can only hope for more transparency on the issue of water contamination from fracking in the UK. Those chemicals can easily end up in the environment - studies in Pennsylvania showed 6.6% of the wells there were leaking, and other studies from Canada, Australia and Norway have leakage rates of up to 20%. We're assured, of course, that Britain will have the highest standards, as we do in the North Sea, yet last month there were 55 leaks of oil and chemicals in those fields. Just imagine that on our fields and around our homes.

Then there's the global environmental questions. A recent analysis by Carbon Tracker found between 60 and 80% of existing known fossil fuel reserves cannot be burned if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Then we get to cost. Opponents of wind turbines make much of the cost of subsidies for them (around 14p/day on the average bill, by the way, versus 48p for nuclear power cleanup). But fossil fuels are hugely subsidised, and shale gas is getting further handouts.

The tax breaks specifically for fracking announced by Chancellor George Osborne, with tax on income cut from 62% to 30%, amount to yet another subsidy for fossil fuels - one more addition to the half a trillion US dollars provided globally in 2011. The announcement comes despite the pledge three years ago by Britain, with the other G20 nations, to have out fossil fuel subsidies.

The Commons Environmental Audit committee is now conducting an enquiry into fossil fuel subsidies and it was recently told by consultant Charles Perry that taxpayers are putting six times as much subsidies into fossil fuels as renewables.

A further subsidy comes from the cost of the new office for unconventional oil and gas, which we were told aimed to "accelerate the development of shale responsibly". Apparently it will also provide information to debunk "myths" around shale, assuming it can find people who came down in the last shower of rain to listen to it.

But don't we need this, despite the costs, and won't it rescue us from a looming potential energy?

No. First, analysts are broadly in agreement that little if any shale gas could be produced in Britain before 2020. It is irrelevant for the next seven years in meeting our needs.

Second, while in the US shale gas may have dramatically dropped the cost of the fuel, this was in an isolated market, without, then, import/export facilities. That's not true of Britain, closely connected to the global market. The price we would pay for any shale gas produced would be the world price - and the International Energy Agency predicts gas prices will rise by 40% by 2020.

Locking ourselves into a gas-fuelled energy future would be locking in to a high-cost future, and a volatile cost future. That's what we've had in the past decade - although the volatility has been all on the upward side.

Instead, we could invest now in renewable energy and - critically and often forgotten - energy conservation. Large amounts of we energy we use now is of no benefit, from our leaky, ill-insulated housing to office blocks lit 24/7, stand-by on domestic appliances to unnecessarily energy-hungry electricity generation.

That would create jobs - good jobs, develop new industries and technologies (offshore wind, where we have huge natural resources and technological skills from North Sea oil), and assure ourselves of an affordable, secure energy future. That's not fracking fairydust, but sound common sense.