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Sunday, 1 September 2013

Fracking – It’s that Prometheus Syndrome Again!

In September 2012 I attended a lecture given by Peter Turner, a founder of Cuadrilla Resources; a lecture organised the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Turner is a geoscientist, and what he said was quite interesting. You might think that, being a geoscientist he would have been able to explain what caused the earth tremors that caused the fracking operations (otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing of shale rock (to release natural gas)) near Blackpool in the UK to be halted. You would be very wrong. Turner admitted during this lecture that he and his company did not know why these tremors had occurred. As I mentioned in a previous blog, scientists and engineers do not know what they are doing, but this will not stop them from doing it. And the reasons for this are?

There are several answers to this question. The first is that they are Prometheans. Their feet and minds are firmly planted in the past, where they are bound by unbreakable chains, and, being blind to the damage that they have caused to the natural world over the centuries, they see the future as the past, only with slightly more advanced technology. That this future also involves more destruction of the ecosystem that we depend upon for life, that it will entail more exploitation of the weak and vulnerable, that it has nothing to offer in dealing with the problems now so numerous that there is a danger that we will be overwhelmed by them … well, these Prometheans have nothing to say about such matters, except that the risks can be managed. And about this phrase I will say more in a future blog.

The other major reason for continuing with fracking is self-evidently that of money, and this is why vested interests (the engineering industry and engineering institutions, and investors) and the British Government are pushing for fracking in the UK to go ahead. It is very clear that there are huge potential tax revenues tempting the UK Government as well as the revenues that will flow from the sale of gas exploration rights. There will also be some job creation (and preservation) as a result of fracking. The UK Government’s policy on re-balancing the economy also means that it favours economic developments based in science, engineering and technology: hence the decision to go ahead with building more nuclear power stations; the recent push to allow the use of GM crops; and the unwillingness to support the EU ban on some neonicotinoids.

Recently the Church of England (CoE) waded into the debate about fracking, offering a surprisingly poorly informed statement on the matter. Quite rightly the CoE pointed out that we should be concerned about those who suffer from fuel poverty. Yet there are other policy interventions that can be made to help such people, which do not involve plundering the earth of its natural resources. The CoE also seem to be implying that exploitation of shale gas resources will result in lower gas prices in the UK. How is this so? We have oil resources in the North Sea, but this does not result in low prices at the petrol pumps in the UK!

I do not have any idea what we will be paying for natural gas in 10 years time, with or without UK shale gas. What I do know is that natural gas is a globally traded commodity, and its price has been historically linked to oil prices, which is partly why we have been paying so much for gas over the past years. I also know that demand for oil is increasing and its price is forecast to continue to increase. So too will gas prices, not just because of the link to oil price, but also because the demand for natural gas is also forecast to grow, and when demand increases, prices tend to rise. And both the UK government and investors in shale gas will want to maximise their revenues. Diesel fuel was at one time much cheaper in the UK, than petrol. This is no longer the case. This is because diesel is an industrial fuel and demand for diesel is increasing in the developing world, which is partly why diesel prices are now so high. Natural Gas is also an industrial fuel. Demand is also increasing. It will increase further as a result of people substituting natural gas for oil and coal. It is likely therefore, that prices will increase!

Evidently, there are many factors at play which will determine future gas prices. When trying to estimate future prices, one has to make assumptions. If the assumptions made are incorrect, or factors change, then so too will be the estimated prices. So, why the CoE has, at this stage, linked fracking with relieving the problem of fuel poverty in the UK, is baffling. The Department for Energy and Climate Change have already commissioned a study on the affect of unconventional gas on UK gas prices. In due course we will closely analyse the resulting report to see just how likely will be, the predicted fall in UK gas prices.

The CoE statement also mentions the potential job creation that will come from fracking. The problem though that these are jobs from the past, from the industrial era, and ones that also just disappear once the gas is gone. What we need in the UK are jobs that are sustainable, that are based on energy sources that have a future, that create products and services that other countries will want to buy, that will provide a platform for further developments, creating employment for future generations.

Those who support fracking argue that natural gas is better than coal in terms of green house gas emissions. This of course is true, but the environmental argument is not based on choosing the lesser of two evils, but about ridding the world of dependence on fossil fuels. This aspect of the debate tends to be overlooked among those keen to support fracking.

We have, as a society, already used more than our fair share of oil and natural gas. The exploitation of shale gas can be seen as the act of a civilisation that is so desperate to get its hands on fossil fuels, that it is resorting to “scrapping the barrel” for the last remnants. What is left does not belong to us. We should leave it where it is so that future generations can use it if they need it. What we should be doing is beginning the process of transitioning away from fossil fuels, and ending our addiction to them. This is something that future generations will thank us for. They will certainly not thank us for a legacy that leaves them no natural resources, which is the inevitable outcome of policies that support fracking. Have a think about how much conflict there will be in a resource depleted world, when those with military might begin to use it to exert control over these resources.

And what of this Royal Academy of Engineering report that the CoE mentions? This you might think is an independent body, so this report can be taken as meaningful. You can believe this if you want to, but such bodies are only as independent as those that serve on the working parties that produce, review, and approve such reports. The report states that members of the working group declared any potential conflicts of interest (CoIs), but does not state if there were any, and what these were. The essence of independence is not having any CoIs as well as not being willing to just produce the expected outcome.

Believe if you want in the independence of the report, but after working for over 30 years with scientists, engineers and technologist, I have never met any that were truly independent, that did not have an agenda, and did not act, in some degree, for their own benefit – this is human. People advise in their own interests, and the dynamics of these so called independent working groups, are mostly such that they deliver the answers that their sponsor is looking for. If you doubt this, you should read the story of the emperor’s new clothes. Collective denial and delusion are everywhere.

I will be undertaking a very close and detailed review of this report in the future, and will deliver my final “professional” opinion on it in due course. My preliminary assessment is that it is not demonstrated in the report, that it is independent. Readers will have to decide for themselves, but should note that truly independent people are like eagles – you find them one at a time, and they do not flock.

Fracking will most likely happen. Let us not however pretend that this will be so because it is best for the people of the UK, for it will go ahead because it is best for certain vested interests: the UK Government, investors, engineering companies, engineers, engineering bodies, researchers and consultants, experts, and the like. And people should use their vote and their right to peacefully protest to show their objections to this. And, if we can discover who has commercial links with companies who will be involved in fracking, then perhaps also commercial boycotts of these companies and organisations might help. We all have wallets and purses and a right to decide whose products and services we purchase. These are the means by which we can peacefully bring about a better world.

See my later entry: See-through Engineering and Fracking

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