No Dash for Fracking Gas
Climate Radio takes a look at the battle for the UK’s energy future: on the one side we have Chancellor George Osborne and the gas lobby whose key star is former CEO of BP, Lord “cost-cutting” Browne, now chair of the UK’s leading gas fracking company Cuadrilla Resources and who sits at the heart of government inside the Cabinet Office; on the other side are the communities resisting the threat of fracking on their land, the government’s own Committee on Climate Change, 21 people who occupied a gas-fired power station – and everyone else interested in maintaining a habitable planet.
- David Kennedy, CEO,Committee on Climate Change
- Dr John Broderick, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research
- Vanessa Vine, co-ordinator, Britain & Ireland Frack Free (BIFF!) and Frack Free Sussex
- Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Advisor to the National Toxics Network, Australia
Chancellor George Osborne is planning to build up to 40 new gas-fired power stations even though the government’s own independent advisors warn that this would be illegal, expensive and crash our climate commitments. The Chancellor is also encouraging the polluting and landscape-despoiling process of gas fracking in the UK, while the Foreign & Commonwealth Office has been promoting this controversial technology internationally.
From a climate change perspective we already have more carbon in fossil fuel company reserves than we can safely burn before we add yet another source of unconventional fuel into the mix. Unless there is an effective global cap on carbon emissions or a global carbon tax, developing shale gas reserves by fracking will increase global greenhouse gas emissions.
The good news is that communities from the US to Egypt and from Australia to Algeria are fighting back against the threat of fracking in their area, and the Chancellor’s entire gas policy will be challenged by climate protestors in the UK when they return en masse to the site of the West Burton gas-fired power station for the Reclaim The Power camp 17-20 August this year.
What the UK Dash for Gas means for climate change
Last September the Committee on Climate Change wrote to the government warning them that “unabated gas-fired generation could not form the basis for Government policy, given the need under the Climate Change Act to set policies to meet carbon budgets and the 2050 target”. The UK’s gas strategy – produced at the insistence of Chancellor George Osborne – says that the UK would consider weakening its carbon budgets in future in order to accommodate a high-gas scenario.
What’s cheaper – gas or renewables?
Fuel bills have risen dramatically over the last five years due to the rising price of gas. UK household energy bills increased by about 50% (£360) between 2004 & 2011. Over 60% of this increase was due to the rising cost of gas while less than 10% was because of the cost of investment in renewable energy.
The cost of gas is likely to continue to rise (as global demand continues to grow) while the cost of renewable energy is predicted to fall (as the technologies become mature and achieve economies of scale). Wind power is likely to be begin to be cheaper than gas as early as 2015 . The dash for gas would therefore tie us to higher energy bills, while switching to renewable energy would make our energy bills cheaper. Depending on how high the price of gas rises, the Committee on Climate Change has calculated that investing in low-carbon technology could save consumers between £25-£100 billion by 2030.
The BBC had to make a clarification after its BBC Panorama programme falsely implied that the government’s climate targets would add more to the cost of fuel bills than the rising price of gas. The programme was based on a report by accountancy giant KPMG which was widely publicised but never actually published. The Department of Energy and Climate Change said that “the report’s assumptions are so flawed the conclusions are near pointless“. The consultants that KPMG hired to write the report describe themselves as world-leading consultants to the nuclear industry.
Fuel poverty in the UK
Britain has the worst rates of fuel poverty in Western Europe with nearly 20% of all households in fuel poverty. That’s around five million households. In 2010-20111 there were 2,700 “excess winter deaths” according to a government commissioned report (Final Report of the Fuel Poverty Review – John Hills, 2012, p.7) which also found that fuel poverty was likely to be a significant contributor to this.
At the same time that its poorest customers face the choice between heating and eating, energy companies are still making huge profits. In May this year British Gas paid £16 million to its senior executives.
What Fracking means for climate change
The Tyndall Centre concluded “without a meaningful cap on global carbon emissions, the exploitation of shale gas reserves is likely to increase total emissions.” So while gas fracking in the US has been partly responsible for reducing emissions domestically, this has also resulted in the country exporting more coal which is burnt abroad instead. Without a global framework or policy instrument which progressively reduces the amount of fossil fuel we emit, exploiting shale gas only adds to the total amount of fossil fuels that are available to fry the planet.
So why is the UK promoting this technology abroad?
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides support to UK companies wishing to exploit shale gas opportunities abroad in countries such as the US, China, Mexico, Bulgaria and Lithuania. As we saw with the FCO’s support for Arctic drilling, we have an unreconstructed department whose top priority is to service the needs of the fossil fuel companies rather than to act in the public interest.
The Gas Mafia vs Democracy
Why is the Chancellor being allowed to dictate UK energy policy? Why is test drilling going ahead in the West Sussex village of Balcombe when 82% of residents oppose it? Why is the government proposing to remove the right of communities to oppose fracking through the Growth & Infrastructure Bill it is putting through parliament?
As we reported in our show on the UK’s democratic deficit, the gas lobby has key allies in every government department that might have a bearing on gas policy. The details (compiled by Frack Off) are worth repeating in detail for the shocking conflict of interest they reveal:
- Lord Browne – former CEO of BP, the man responsible for ushering in the poor safety culture at BP which resulted in the Deepwater Horizon disaster – is Chair of UK gas fracking company Cuadrilla. He is also board member at Riverstone which owns 40% of Cuadrilla. Browne is lead non-executive director at the Cabinet Office.
- Ben Moxham – David Cameron’s special advisor on energy until recently, previously on the board of Riverstone alongside Lord Browne.
- Lord Howell – an oil and gas lobbyist who acts as personal advisor to Foreign Secretary William Hague and is also the father-in-law of Chancellor George Osborne.
- Lord Green – is a minister at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office who heads UK Trade & Investment which has been promoting gas fracking worldwide. He is also non-executive director at BASF which produces the chemicals used in the production of gas from fracking.
- Baroness Hogg – a non-executive director at the Treasury and multinational oil and gas company BG Group which would profit from gas fracking in UK and already profits from fracking in US.
- Ian Taylor – donated £0.5 million to Conservative Party. He’s president of multinational energy and commodity trading company Vitol which owns 5% of extreme gas company Dart energy.
- Guy Robinson – special advisor to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson and a former lobbyist at Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, whose members would profit from UK gas fracking/dash for gas.
Here is the Chancellor’s father-in-law, Lord Howell, caught on camera along with Peter Lilley MP, plotting the UK’s retreat from our world-leading Climate Change Act. This was part of an undercover investigation by Greenpeace.
Did Peter Lilley’s controversial promotion to the Energy & Environment Committee (ECC) play a role in that select committee recommending the government hurry up and get on with shale gas exploration despite recognising that:
- “unchecked development of gas-fired generation, which the development of shale gas might facilitate, might be incompatible with meeting the UK’s climate change obligations” and
- the government had yet to “complete its research into the impact which shale gas extraction could have on greenhouse gas emissions”?
Peter Lilley has recently been appointed to David Cameron’s new foreign policy advisory board. Both this position and his membership of ECC are incompatible with his salaried position with oil company Tethy’s Petroleum. Or rather they are compatible with the idea that our democracy is stuffed with an elite which is more sympathetic to the interest of corporations than to the public interest.
The Health Impacts of Fracking
Fracking results in pollution of both water and air pollution which cause significant health impacts. The fracking boom in the US only took off after Dick Cheney secured an exemption for the industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This has become known as the Halliburton Loophole. The Oscar-nominated film Gasland collects the testimonies of people affected by fracking across the US while the List of the Harmed compiles details of nearly 1,400 people affected by health and other impacts. In the US, fracking companies have been buying people’s silence by including gagging clauses in legal settlements for damage claims. Bloomberg Businessweek reviewed hundreds of regulatory and legal filings and found that in most of the cases, homeowners were bound to silence.
In the UK, fracking has not yet taken off so we have yet to see this happening. However we have already seen the industry and its supporters lying. In Lancashire a group of concerned residents made a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about a Cuadrilla brochure and 11 of the 16 complaints were upheld. The ASA ruled that the company had made claims that were misleading, exaggerated and unsubstantiated. Peter Lilley MP on BBC Radio 4’s Week In Westminster recently made the blatantly false claim that “not a single person has been harmed by water contamination.”
An Australian report reviews the studies that have been done on the pollution and health impacts associated with fracking (Toxic Chemicals in the Exploration and Production of Gas from Unconventional Sources – National Toxics Network, April 2013). In the US findings of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about the toxic impacts of fracking were suppressed by oil industry interests:
In the UK the Royal Society teamed up with the industry-friendly Royal Academy of Engineers to look at the possible dangers of fracking and concluded that “the health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively in the UK. Operational best practices must be implemented and enforced through strong regulation.”
However, the United Nations Environment Programme concluded: “Hydrologic fracking may result in unavoidable environmental impacts even if UG is extracted properly, and more so if done inadequately. Even if risk can be reduced theoretically, in practise many accidents from leaky or malfunctioning equipment as well as from bad practises are regularly occurring. This may be due to high pressure to lower the costs or to improper staff training, or to undetected leaks leading to contamination of the ground water. Existing laws and regulations of the mining activities often do not address specific aspects of hydraulic fracturing.” (Gas Fracking: Can we safely squeeze the rocks? – UNEP, Nov 2102).
The RS/RAE report concluded that faulty wells were the most likely source of contamination. Indeed an industry report found that 6 % of gas wells show signs of leaking as soon as they are drilled, and this rises to 50 percent within 15 years. Cuadrilla’s test operations in Lancashire already has a worse-than-industry-average record. A Freedom of Information Act request revealed that Cuadrilla hid a problem with a well from ministers for a period of six months. The well had been damaged as a result of an earthquake caused by the test drill. The company continued to drill for a period of three months after its licence expired.
So we have yet to see any signs of the tighter regulatory and monitoring framework and best practice that the RS/RAE report recommended. In fact David Cameron speaking in the House of Commons at the beginning of June talked about loosening rather than tightening the regulatory framework for the industry:
We also put down a marker to get rid of unnecessary regulation in making the most out of indigenous resources such as shale gas … we’ve got to ensure that old rules designed for different technologies do not hold us back today.