This week George Osborne announced tax breaks for companies wishing to exploit the UK’s natural shale gas deposits through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The Government wants the UK to have the highest tax incentives for these firms in the world, by cutting the tax owed on income from the process to around 30%. They’ve already began offering licenses for fracking to companies looking to seek out the reserves that are mostly focused in Lincolnshire, apparently revolutionising our energy mix and reducing prices dramatically. Environmental campaigners, however, have labelled the government a ‘disgrace’, and Water UK (the firm that represents all the water companies in the UK) have voiced their concerns. So, why all the bother for something that’ll make energy cheaper?
First, a little about the process. Fracking involves drilling wells a few miles below the surface, running horizontally through layers of shale gas. A mixture of water, chemicals and sand is then pumped into these wells, widening fissures in the rock and releasing pockets of gas which is then flushed back up to the surface for collection. It is a process that has been around since the 1940s, but new technologies have made it much easier for companies to release it in a cost-efficient way. The United States is currently the world leader in fracking, with a large deposit across the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York – a deposit that could apparently power all homes in the country for 50 years. It has revolutionised the US energy market with now over 25% of energy coming from shale gas.
However, some countries and US states have banned it. France did so in 2001 and Bulgaria in 2012. This is because fracking has been linked to a couple of pretty dangerous environmental problems. Studies in the US and UK have linked fracking to small earthquakes (which is why it was stopped in the UK until last year), with some suggesting it could lead to larger, more frequent ones. There are also serious concerns about the damage to water supplies. Cases of water contamination have been documented, with storage and transport accidents leading to chemicals and briny water contaminating water supplies. There is also the possibility of methane escaping during the process, which could lead to explosions. I must point out that many of these claims have been disputed by fracking companies, that there is evidence on either side, and that safeguards have been put in place by many companies to try and prevent any damage.
However, there is one particularly glaring issue that many seem to be ignoring. Shale gas is a fossil fuel, and its extraction and burning release both methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These are greenhouse gases that pretty much everyone (apart from some people on the fringes of science as well as many of the Republicans in the US House of Representatives) agree cause climate change.
David Cameron promised to change the Tories. He promised to make this one of the greenest governments ever, changing the party symbol to a green tree. The Liberal Democrats are a party committed to renewable energy, even opposing the growth of nuclear power. The Labour party haven’t been particularly strong in their opposition. At the beginning of this Parliament some real progress seemed to be being made, with the new Green Deal for homes and some tax incentives for wind farms and other renewables. The London array will be the largest off-shore wind farm in the world. And yet, now, we see the same old stuff. Just because it is easier, just because it might keep energy prices down, and just because huge energy companies are able to employ powerful lobbying firms, the politicians have caved and they’ve put fossil fuels back at the top of the agenda.
Whether or not the process of fracking itself is damaging to the environment, to communities and to water supplies is almost secondary. Governments in this day and age, when the science is clear, when we are approaching a terminal point, should not be incentivising climate changing energy reliance. Perhaps, if we don’t do anything, the ‘lights will go out’. Perhaps shale gas will create jobs and grow the UK economy. However, I’m of the opinion that having a world we can actually live in, that does not posed an increased threat to us, is probably more important than getting richer.
Renewables can create jobs too and, with the right investment, can keep the lights on. And maybe, just maybe, they are a good way of getting people to use less energy. Turn the lights off now and again, walk rather than drive those two miles to the local shop. It might be unpopular, it might affect our economy a bit, but it will certainly help save the world from the coming environmental disasters if we continue to think more about money and ease than what is best for the planet.
This week, politicians showed once again that big business and money runs this country. I, for one, stand with Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in calling this a disgrace.