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Fracking is the death spasm of a defunct economic order
5th March 2014
Political support for fracking is not just about energy, writes Paul Mobbs. It reflects the greater ecological and resource crisis at the root of our current economic woes - and only postpones the essential shift to a new kind of economy.
It's only by changing the economic process itself, to adapt to the ecological limits acting upon the human system, that we can tackle the inter-related issues of resource depletion, climate change and ecological degradation.
For eight months I've been travelling around England and Wales talking about 'unconventional gas' - shale gas, coal-bed methane and underground coal gasification, often erroneously conflated as 'fracking'.
This intensive period of work began last June, and continued into 2014 to meet the continued requests for talks. In particular I've tried to tour those areas next in line for extreme energy developments - South Wales, The Marches and the South Midlands.
Travelling has its fringe benefits. I get to read a lot, whiling away the hours on trains or in cafés, moving between consecutive events or home.
2013 saw the publication of the largest number of new scientific papers and reports on the unconventional gas issue. As I've been travelling to tell others 'what I know', I've also used that time to extend and refine my work - tailoring it to incorporate the new research published over the past year.
The central question - why?
Thus far the debate around unconventional gas / fracking has focussed on pollution, flammable water, earthquakes, noise, toxic fumes, climate change, etc. As a result people mainly focus on the "what?", or at a local level the "where?", of the issue. My research leads me toward one single question... "why?".
It's only by asking "why?", and finding the evidence to support that analysis, that we can make sense of what is otherwise such a senseless policy. Trouble is, that question produces a very unpopular answer!
With regards to the "what?" and "where?" issues, there's plenty of evidence available to settle the arguments already highlighted by the media debate. For example:
- The arguments for cheap and plentiful shale gas? - they're based upon wishful thinking rather than hard fact, are biased towards the business interests of the energy service and investment industries involved, cannot be supported by objective data from the USA, and are not supported by other energy economists, economic consultants or even Cuadrilla's Chairman and Government non-executive minister, Lord Browne;
- The lower carbon emissions from shale gas promoted by recent government reports? - that's not what has been found from actual measurements in the field, and that specific claim is based upon an unrepresentative 'non-randomised' survey by a university department which has previously fallen foul of reporting its conflicts of interest;
- The argument that Britain can regulate fracking safely? - that's not what experience tells us from the USA, and the United Nations Environment Programme has stated that even with the best regulation pollution is still inevitable;
- The lack of evidence for health effects from shale production, again trumpeted in recent government reports? - again, that's not supported by recent studies, media reports, or investigations into the process used to create that Government-backed health study.
The difficulty is that, irrespective of how much evidence exists to challenge the official / Government line, it's practically irrelevant because they don't want to hear it. It's for this reason that we must put the "why?" question instead.
An ideological clash
Over recent months I've talked to action groups, local councillors, people in village and town halls, and students in lecture theatres. People often think that I do these talks just to tell people 'what I know'.
In fact I also study people's reactions to what I say, and take mental notes on the questions and discussions afterwards. By studying these I can refine how I present and argue my work so that other people might understand it better in the future.
However, I find that of late I'm having problems presenting the 'fracking' issue. The evidence I'm reviewing, and my efforts to create a holistic view of the issue, are dragging me towards a specific vision of its underlying causes.
Unfortunately both the general public and some environmentalists have problems following me down this route. I can't explain the full details within the space available here, but I will summarise the main points.
The greater unspoken issue here is the ideological clash between different views of economic theory.
The fundamental issue is 'economic degrowth'
Under the traditional economic view, energy is just another price factor in the economy. In contrast, recent research suggests that energy and resource prices are far more significant within the process of technological development and the creation of economic growth.
Energy's impact on the economy is perhaps ten times its nominal value. It's high energy and resource prices which drive our economic woes today, not simply debt.
Proposals for unconventional gas in Britain do nothing to change that; shale gas is more expensive than the 'conventional' sources we rely upon today. Therefore no matter how quickly we roll-out projects we're never going to solve our fundamental economic problems.
It's at this point that I experience the greatest resistance to the message regarding the relationship between economics, energy and the environment. That's because our ecological problems are multi-faceted; i.e., this is not just a carbon issue.
In addition to the ecological economics debate, we're now at peak oil too - and that's going to force a resolution to this issue whether we like it or not. Irrespective of which ideological camp you're in, this message doesn't have a 'positive side'; what we're talking about here is economic degrowth.
'Business as usual' is over
In short, if you want to know why the Government is so bent upon fracking, or setting fire to coal seams underground, it's quite simple really - there's no high quality fossil fuels left to burn to keep 'business as usual' working!
Unfortunately resistance to the issue of 'ecological limits' extends well beyond business and politics. Some environmentalists have difficulties with the realities of 'limits' too.
For example, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the book, 'The Limits to Growth', there was a conference held in Washington. Entitled 'Perspectives on Limits to Growth 2012', it was hosted at the Smithsonian Institute, and organised by the Smithsonian Institute and the Club of Rome.
And the whole day was almost entirely ignored by the world's media and - rather inexplicably - by much of the environment movement!
We must change the economic process itself
As part of our opposition to fracking we have to be absolutely clear about why it will not do what is claimed of it.
Yes, there's plenty of evidence to say that unconventional gas production is bad. There's equally compelling evidence that, irrespective of the option the Government chooses, we will still not solve our economic difficulties by any 'growth' solution either.
The real problem is economic growth and consumption within a finite environment. It's only by changing the economic process itself, to adapt to the ecological limits acting upon the human system, that we can tackle the inter-related issues of resource depletion, climate change and ecological degradation.
Extreme energy technologies do nothing to help us achieve those ends. They are a forlorn attempt to stave off the inevitable moment when that change in economic objectives must come.
Paul Mobbs is an independent environmental consultant, researcher and author.
For a fully referenced version of this article see the fully annotated version of this article on Paul's web site.
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