Tuesday 10 February 2015

There's more to fracking than safety

I feel a certain amount of ambivalence about the opposition to fracking being expressed by some politicians in Wales.  Personally, I’m opposed to fracking.  We really shouldn’t be seeking new sources of fossil fuels at all; we should instead be seeking a renewables-based future.  But in the absence of a clear plan to achieve that, our economy has become increasingly dependent on gas.  Both the availability and the price of that gas have been impacted by fracking in America, and even if the gas we use isn’t directly produced by fracking, it would not be so readily available on world markets were it not for fracking.  It seems to me that a willingness to go on using gas whilst refusing to exploit domestic resources is a less than honest position to take.  It’s like saying that we’re OK with the environmental damage as long as it’s happening somewhere else.
The decision of the Assembly last week to call for a moratorium until the safety of the technique is proved has been hailed as some sort of success.  I fear that they are celebrating too soon.  Calling a temporary halt to something for a reason which can be overcome is not the same as stopping it completely.
I would have thought that AMs would have learnt something from the debacle of the M4 relief road.  During the One Wales period, there were plenty of people calling for the plan to be scrapped entirely on environmental grounds.  But caution prevailed, and it was, instead, shelved on narrow cost grounds.  It was obvious – or should have been – at the time that the cost objection could be overcome, and that the scheme could and would then be resurrected.  And it duly came to pass.
Back to fracking, and the comparison is simply this: if it can be shown that fracking can be undertaken at an acceptably low level of risk (and nothing is ever entirely risk-free), then the objection is removed and fracking is back on the agenda.  Those opposing fracking may believe that the safety arguments are strong enough, but I’m not convinced.  Certainly there have been problems in the US, and I wouldn’t want to dismiss them out of hand, but as the technology matures and more experience is gained, I’m sure that those who stand to make their fortunes from fracking will be able to produce adequate evidence that it can, in most circumstances and locations, be undertaken safely.
So if we really want to stop fracking, we have to reject in principle the exploitation of further fossil fuel resources, rather than reject one technique on narrow grounds at a point in time.  And we can only do that if we have a plan to stop using fossil fuels and move to a renewables-based future.
And that highlights another problem.  Some of the politicians opposing fracking also oppose every plan which comes forward for renewable energy; others support new nuclear build.  Their position seems to have nothing to do with putting forward a coherent renewable energy policy, and little really to do with the safety of a particular technique – it’s all about jumping on populist bandwagons in their own electoral interests.  We need rather more long term thinking than that.

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