Guardian live: To frack or not to frack?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Despite warnings from across the political spectrum that fracking will harm efforts to tackle climate change, an obstinate David Cameron insisted last year that his government was ‘going all out for shale.’ But this week, just days after the Scottish government declared a moratorium, came the news that gas extraction is set to be banned from 40% of British shale areas, dealing a heavy blow to the fracking industry.

Fracking operation. Photo by Joshua Doubek/ Wiki Commons
This set the backdrop for a lively discussion on the merits and dangers of fracking, chaired by the Guardian’s head of environment, Damian Carrington, in front of an audience at Manchester’s Friends Meeting House. Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett and Tony Bosworth, national energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, debated the case for a total ban on UK fracking with Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School and Nick Riley, director of Carboniferous.

It didn’t take long for global warming to become one of the central themes of the discussion.

Bradshaw began by reminding the audience that both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have advocated a limited role for natural gas as part of a transition to a low carbon energy system, though he stopped short of saying fracking should be the method used to extract it in the UK.   

Riley, a chartered Geologist and strong advocate of fracking, stepped in, describing the CCC’s targets for decarbonising the UK’s electricity supply by 2030 as “na├»ve” and arguing that shale gas could be a realistic option to help the UK meet its future energy needs. “If climate change is going to be a central part of this debate we need to be extremely careful and have a holistic view.”

But Bennett, who boasted that the Greens are the only UK wide party to oppose fracking, was unconvinced, laying out her main objective to fracking in clear terms: “It’s a fossil fuel and we have to get away from fossil fuels.” She urged the self-titled ‘greenest government ever’ to invest in energy conservation and renewable energies instead, adding that “once you’ve created an industry it’s very hard to use it for a little while and then shut it down.”

Several members of the audience echoed her sentiments. “Do the panel accept that we need to avoid 2 degrees warming or risk runaway climate change?” asked one woman, “It’s like saying we’ll go in an aeroplane but it’s OK since we only have 50% chance of crashing.”

Throughout the event Bosworth declared his unequivocal opposition to fracking. “It’s a risk that we don’t need to take,” he insisted, citing a recent study from New York’s Health Department which concluded the health risks of hydraulic fracturing are ‘inestimable’. On the strength of this evidence New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decided to ban hydraulic fracturing in the state. 

One former resident of Balcombe - where British energy firm Cuadrilla abandoned its fracking plans last year following a public backlash – also raised concerns about US studies which have reportedly shown a link between fracking and birth defects in surrounding areas.

But Riley countered that scientists can’t conduct the necessary research into the safety and viability of shale gas unless they are first allowed to frack. “Calling for a moratorium on the basis that we need to learn more is a bit daft because how are we going to learn more if we don’t try it within the context of our own Geology in the UK?...Let’s get on with it and learn.”

By this point the distribution of applause suggested the majority of the audience strongly opposed fracking, leading one participant to question the threat to democracy posed by having the technology imposed on communities without their consent. “When are the people going to have a say?” she asked.

“Make no mistake, the right to peaceful protest in this country is under threat. It’s being restricted,” replied Natalie Bennett, drawing reference to the strong police presence in Balcombe last year. “People are being terrified away from exercising their right to peaceful protest.”

Bradshaw agreed there were problems with the way energy companies have been allowed to develop plans without consulting communities first. However, he also highlighted the tensions that exist in communities where opposition to fracking isn’t universal: “If you talk to some residents in Balcombe the biggest problem for them was the campaigners.”

Riley appeared less concerned. “Those who oppose Fracking can vote for Natalie,” he quipped to enthusiastic cheers from sections of the audience.

Before concluding the event the four panellists were asked to briefly summarise their positions.

Riley warned that the public should not be deceived by anti-fracking ‘hype’. “My biggest fear is misinformation in terms of making the public fearful around health, water contamination and impact on the landscape.”

Bennett, meanwhile, recalled a meeting she recently attended at which people from a variety of political affiliations were asked whether they thought fracking should form part of Britain’s energy future: “Not a single person raised their hands,” she said.

“It’s a mistake for the government to say they want to go all out for shale,” said Bradshaw, “In a sense that’s undemocratic because it’s not giving us the choice to decide whether we want to go all out for shale or not.” 

Bosworth ended the event with a quote from John Ashton, a former Special Representative on Climate Change for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO): “You can be in favour of exploiting shale gas or you can be in favour of tackling climate change but you can’t be in favour of both at the same time.”


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