Fracking: the end of the world as we know it?

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable post? The fracking debate has become terrifying for me following a letter last month in the Financial Times from Chris Loaring, Commercial Manager, Argyll Environmental, Brighton:

Mr Loaring says:

“Shale gas is being heralded as the cleanest form of fossil fuels, since it produces less carbon dioxide on burning when compared with oil and coal. Yet the extraction and use of shale gas produces huge amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. Methane losses come from leakage during drilling, during flowback of the fracking fluid, during compression of the gas and during pipeline transport.

“Results of initial research in February 2012 indicated that methane leakage rates from wells in Denver, Colorado were about 4 per cent of total gas production, while further research on the heavily fracked natural gasfields in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado and the Uinta Basin of Utah indicate that the leakage rates may actually be as high as 9 per cent. Most scientists are in agreement that any leakage above 2 per cent in gas production makes the fuel a dirty source of energy and at least as problematic as coal”.

Mr. Loaring includes ‘leakage during drilling’, but he does not, indeed cannot quantify it. After fracturing a large, uncertain area, where does one put detectors? The only reliable measure will be the change in methane levels in the global atmosphere. Methane escape is not even necessarily limited to 100% of commercial capture. By the time worst fears have been confirmed, it will be too late.

According to the United states Environmental Protection agency, the impact of methane is over 20 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period. (CH4is 33 times as potent as CO2, but does not remain permanently in the atmosphere).

If global warming is accelerated in this way, we would all be well advised to put our grandchildren to sleep painlessly now, if the behaviour of the Easter Islanders in a comparable self-induced foreseeable crisis is anything to go by. But my message is not the End of the World is Nigh. The worst case scenario is avoidable, even on my worst fears. Irresistible force versus immovable post? If we are not to take this appalling risk, all fracking must cease immediately, at least pending exhaustive testing and monitoring of overall methane levels. But the economic case for fracking is overwhelming – it will remain irresistible as long as economic growth and business as usual remain basic assumptions. Methane leakage means that fracking is the last straw: resistance to it is pointless unless it takes on the whole might of conventional economic wisdom.

Meanwhile, in another part of the jungle, the IPCC reports that:

“scientists are 95% certain that humans are the “dominant cause” of global warming since the 1950s.”

Incredibly, some sections of the media have interpreted some details of the IPCC report as indicating that the problem is less serious than previously thought. Certainly the general reaction is not that this ought to become the dominant issue globally. There are of course strong (not sound) reasons why the great majority, whether in the affluent or impoverished parts of the world, should feel the need to find reassurance that business as usual, including growth can continue. Experience tells people that a steady state economy is not pleasant. They have not yet found it necessary to apply their minds to the work of those who suggest otherwise. For example, when those of us within the Green Party try to explain our view to new recruits who start from an ‘Old Labour’ perspective, we are brushed off with the accusation that we are ‘patronizing’. But to be fair, there are proponents of a steady state economy who make an apparently comprehensive case for it, but who to my mind do not adequately address two crucial aspects. The first, which is covered to some extent, usually by an assumption of some form of Socialism, is that any individual, anywhere who is expected to heed ecological constraints, must feel that their material well being is secure. Among its other advantages, I consider the Citizens’ Basic Income as more likely than Socialism – eventually – to attract a wider consensus.

But a more serious omission is the need to ensure that no one, anywhere is at a competitive disadvantage. steady state advocates have not adequately addressed the dynamics which drive individuals in the business world. Capitalism is a symptom, but the problem is wider. The basic problem  is the Tragedy of the Commons – as expansion reaches limits, the worst behaved end up in the strongest position. For example, should Heathrow have another runway, or does London need a new airport? We ecologists believe that expanding aviation at all is madness, but if Britain does neither, it will lose economically in the immediate future as long as the present arrangements do not break down. This principle applies throughout the economy. Another example is the proliferation of shopping malls. Needless to say it also applies to fracking, but this is of a totally different order of magnitude. We have, or should have an issue alongside which all others pale into insignificance. Finally the debate must be between business as usual, including growth being taken for granted as necessary, and a sustainable economy, which for some of the time at least, will be steady state.

How do we deal with the Tragedy of the Commons? The first essential is the ‘thought experiment’ of the principle underlying the Citizens’ Basic Income: a communal approach to wealth sharing, to ensure material security so that everyone has an interest in preserving the ecosphere, but allow as much freedom as possible for initiative and enterprise as is consistent with sustainability.

David Taylor advocates coalition building as a means to a more rapid progress towards sustainability than has been achieved to date. Nice work if we can get it, but the essential coalition I believe is necessary is also apparently impossible. It is between the Socialists for whom capitalists and the rich are the enemy, and the well heeled more successful (or fortunate) members of society for whom socialists and Socialism are the enemies who they fear wish to destroy society as they know it. I have implied earlier that Socialists need to take our original Green vision more seriously, but this latter group (natural Conservatives) also need to take on board some new ideas. Again, failing some better idea not yet thought of, I offer the Citizens’ Income as a thought experiment. The failure of anyone with any clout in British politics to recognize the serious evil in means testing means that Iain Duncan Smith’s appalling attack on the poorest in society is seen as making sense. IDS is right to get rid of means testing, but as Aesop pointed out three thousand years ago, persuasion is better than force. Allow ‘scroungers’, and everybody else, not to work, but make them better off when they do, which was not the case when IDS came to power. The more successful (or more fortunate) members of society are, I believe capable of grasping the notion that means testing was a form of taxation, and that a Citizens’ Income puts everyone on a level playing field. Even without considering the fate of the planet, a Citizens’ Basic Income is fair. When Conservatives do realize this, and reject Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare abolition plans as wrong in principle, not just bungled, at least a first step towards saving the planet will have been achieved.

This is of course no more than a brief re-hash of what I have been saying for 40 years, have written in a book, and have been blogging for a year now. But fracking has suddenly made it desperately urgent.

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