Climate change and carbon budgets mean UK fracking was always likely to be a temporary phenomenon, Ministers need to reflect on where their surrender to unjustified hype is leading them
Finally, about three years too late, the debate on fracking is moving onto the territory it should have always been played out upon: climate change.
There are myriad reasons to oppose fracking in the UK, varying enormously in their legitimacy, but the one source of opposition that trumps all others is the very real threat that a successful fracking industry is incompatible with long term efforts to tackle climate change. As Environmental Audit Committee Chair Joan Walley argues today, "ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely". Bravo.
As I've argued before the problem with fracking in the current UK context is that if it were to prove as successful as David Cameron and George Osborne hope it would quickly prove incompatible with our climate change goals. Walley uses the "oil tanker" metaphor, arguing that adding ever more fossil fuel infrastructure makes it ever harder to turn the trajectory of UK's energy sector towards decarbonisation. I prefer the Chekov's Gun metaphor: if you build a fracking industry it is going to get used. Either way, in a carbon constrained world you can't construct a new fossil fuel industry without a credible plan for quickly deconstructing it.
There is, of course, a way to square this circle in the form of the 'get out of jail free' card that carbon capture and storage (CCS) offers the fossil fuel industry. If we had a large scale CCS industry up and running (or even the promise of one) you could legitimately continue to pursue large scale fracking activity, assuming of course you could overcome the still legitimate concerns over methane emissions, flaring, air pollution, water pollution, earth tremors, noise, traffic congestion, house price impacts, and any of the other concerns I have forgotten.
But we don't have a large scale CCS industry up and running, we don't even have the vague pretence that we are likely to have a large scale CCS industry up and running at any point in the near future. After almost 10 years of two steps forward, one and three quarter steps back, the UK and Europe are now lagging badly behind other nations in their pursuit of CCS. If there is one environmental failure that this government deserves condemnation for, one failure that undermines the good work it has done on other forms of clean technology and torpedoes the Prime Ministers' flawed decarbonisation strategy for the 2020s it has been the inability to mobilise the CCS industry.
Without proof that CCS can work in the UK, building a fracking industry is the height of environmental and economic irresponsibility. George Osborne and co are effectively encouraging investment and political heartache to develop a sector that would almost certainly have to be shut down within 15 years to meet legally binding climate targets. Those who argue the contrary are still clearly yet to reconclie themselves with what decarbonisation means for industrialised economies.
In addition, the government is seeking to tap into relatively costly oil and gas resources at a point when we know the world's more costly reserves need to be kept in the ground. Meanwhile, the Ministerial obsession with fracking only distracts political and financial capital from the energy efficiency and renewables projects that could make a real and immediate contribution to the economy and efforts to curb emissions.
It is at this point that supporters for the fracking industry - many of whom remain bought and paid for industry lobbyists or have spent a lot of time lunching with said lobbyists - start trotting out their tired arguments in favour of ever more fossil fuels. 'Shale gas can cut emissions by replacing coal', they say; 'what about the gas we use for heating and cooking', they ask; 'the IPCC and the IEA say we can pursue fracking while combatting climate change', they argue; 'if we don't drill for oil and gas, others will', they protest.
These are reasonable arguments, but they still fail to address the central concern: that fracking in its current form is not compatible with tackling climate change. Shale gas can replace coal, but if that were the true goal why won't the government close loopholes that allow coal power to continue well into the 2020s? The IEA and IPCC may nod to shale gas' potential role as a 'bridging fuel', but they also say over and again that we need CCS at scale, which we still do not have. Gas does have a role to play in heating and cooking, but the government's long term decarbonisation plans make plain we need to decarbonise heating as well through the 2030s - again, why build an industry we won't be able to use?
Finally, the argument that 'if we don't supply it, others will' has a name, it is called the drug dealers' defence.
Meanwhile, the government's arguments for fracking - led by Chancellor George Osborne's arrogant attempt to order his colleagues to support the technology - has descended into the parroting of the line the UK has "one of the most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas". No it doesn't. The most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas in the world are those that ensure the controversial practice poses no environment threat by banning it outright.
If the government really wanted to deliver a robust regulatory regime for fracking it would support Labour's 13 amendments to the Infrastructure Bill, each of which seem to be entirely reasonable, as well as the separate amendment requiring the Committee on Climate Change to keep a close eye on the industry's development. After all, the fracking industry has indicated that many developers are already following the best practices proposed by Labour and insists it can play a role in a low carbon economy. If that is the case, why is the government not backing the amendments? Why aren't the shale gas industry's vocal lobbyists demanding that these amendments pass as a means of building public support? Where is the shale gas industry's support for a power sector decarbonisation target for 2030? The only explanation is that the government wants to give the industry the freedom not to follow these environmental best practices and adhere to these climate change safeguards.
The reality is that as MPs are given their first opportunity to vote on the UK's nascent fracking industry the government's support for the sector is descending into chaos. Arguments in favour of cutting energy bills, tackling climate change, and limiting local environmental impacts have all been found wanting, and public opposition looks stronger than ever.
The real tragedy for Ministers, fracking companies, and, yes, those who care about decarbonisation, is that it didn't have to be this way. A fracking strategy developed in tandem with a successful CCS programme and backed by tighter legislation requiring the closure of coal power plants and genuinely world-leading environmental standards could have played a credible role in the UK's low carbon economy. A fracking industry that eschewed cheerleading headlines in favour of modest pilot projects could have built public support without sparking a political fire-fight.
Instead a heady combination of arrogance, incompetence, and a desperate desire to revive the 1980s cash cow that was the oil and gas industry has backed the fracking industry and the government into a corner they will struggle to get out of.
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