The future of fracking: Energy, the environment, and the EU

Road and fields

A bid to frack at a site near Kirby Misperton, North Yorkshire was approved in May this year.

The government has recently approved plans to use horizontal fracking at a site in Lancashire for the first time ever in Britain. Since this latest approval and Third Energy’s successful bid to use the hydraulic fracturing process at a site in North Yorkshire, it is more pertinent than ever to analyse government energy policies, and to examine how the fallout from the EU referendum could have determined their future.

Infamous for its controversy, ‘fracking’ or hydraulic fracturing, has long been noted for heralding a new era  of cleaner, more secure energy. The natural gas extracted is mainly comprised of methane, and is reputedly less polluting than the conventional sources of coal and oil when it is burnt. It presents a politically amenable alternative to imported liquefied natural gas, and in avoiding importation is likely to prove highly attractive to politicians. Since the start of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 energy security has become an ever more critical question, and more crucially where the energy is coming from has succeeded the question how long will it last?

In May, a bid by the natural gas firm Third Energy gained approval by council vote to become the first company licensed to ‘frack’ since a 2012 moratorium on the activity was repealed. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, vies in its controversy with nuclear power, and recent advances in extraction technology have facilitated this push towards natural gas exploitation in the UK. Fracking seeks to extract ‘unconventional’ sources of natural gas, by drilling deep into the earth to reach trapped shale gas. Advocates say that this fuel source is cleaner than conventional coal and oil sources, and emits less carbon dioxide when burnt. Supporters say that using the reserves of natural gas in the UK would go lengths to gain fuel security, and would additionally bolster the economy with new jobs and secondary industries. The contrasting effects centre largely on the rural communities wherein the fracking would occur; claims of minor seismic tremors stopped fracking operations at a site in Lincolnshire in 2011, stalling future ventures in the activity. Much of the concern surrounding this fuel source lies in its environmental impact during the extraction process rather than in its end-point. Correspondingly there are fears that air, water, and noise pollution will occur, that the flares from the burning of excess gas will create additional pollution. It is also a concern to detractors that the chemicals used in the process may infiltrate groundwater aquifers and surface water and contaminate it, and also that the increase in traffic to and from the sites will burden rural infrastructure unequal to this level of industrial activity.

The desire for greater fuel security has been heightened in recent years by emergent political instability in the European regions across which the predominant fuel source (liquefied natural gas) is transported by pipeline. There is further concern resting in the practices that natural gas suppliers across the world use to extract and process the gas; there have been studies in the US, where fracking is becoming ever more widespread, that suggest there is a high incidence of reported leaks using current methods. UK practices would have been subjected to EU statutes on the environmental regulation of fracking, but the situation is problematised by the decision to leave the EU, hence leaving its regulatory influence. The EU has been trying to enforce ‘best available technologies and risk management procedures’ (‘Brefs’). Therefore, fracking can be seen as a serious consideration within the discourse of the EU referendum.

The vote to exit the European Union could destabilise the positive effects of previous EU policies on environmental issues. The EU has tried to mandate a ‘Bref’ on fracking for hydrocarbons, a policy which could ‘clean up’ fracking practices in the UK, and therefore a vote to leave could be a step away from adequate regulation.

Though shale gas is ‘cleaner-burning’ than coal or oil, it still represents a move away from renewable technologies. The notion that natural gas would increase employment is countered by the fact that this employment would be as unsustainable as the fuel supply itself. Surely only investment in renewables can be the key to long-term employment opportunities, not subject to the whims of future energy bias or supply issues?

It has been reported that natural gas, though replacing other more unclean sources of fuel, would not present a marked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. It is just another source of fuel, and the old resources now not imported by the UK would merely be diverted elsewhere for consumption. Carbon dioxide reduction on a global scale would not be affected, the accountability alone would be offset. Therefore, it is arguable that it would be preferable to divert resources to renewable investment; an area where the technology is proven and rapidly advancing, not to a technique which has historically and internationally been proven unstable and unpredictable, and to a source which is clearly finite. The time is surely past for short-sighted energy policy and for unsustainably experimenting with finite natural resources. The changes irreversibly wrought already should be a lesson in what new policy should strive against. Regulation paradoxically can encourage degrading environmental practice. By condoning the activity it facilitates its ubiquity, as with the case of Kirby Misperton and Little Plumpton in Lancashire. However, perhaps in light of current political pressures, regulation marks a compromise and a lesser of two evils.

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