A fracked landscape South of Odessa, Texas. Photo: Dennis Dimick via Flickr.com.
Who will pay the costs of the fracking revolution?
31st December 2013
Despite all the hype that fracking the UK will mean cheaper energy bills, it is increasingly clear that the opposite is the case, writes Lesley Docksey. And who will pay the cost? Taxpayers, energy users, and the environment ...
A proposal that fracking companies should be made to take out insurance bonds to cover the clean up of any pollution they cause has been over-ruled by the government.
In December 2013 the government announced that shale gas exploration would resume across the UK - following its suspensioon after Cuadrilla's efforts in Lancashire triggered earthquakes that caused widespread public fears.
It is worth remembering that, although a simple fracking process has been used for years by energy companies, the 'high volume hydraulic fracturing' now being used is far more dangerous and far-reaching in its effects.
A key fact - not made public by Cuadrilla until some time afterwards - was that the earth tremors they had set off had deformed the one and only test well they had drilled.
And who will pay the cost? One way or another, we will.
We, via the Government - who often forget that it is the taxpayers' money they are so free with - will pay to bribe communities to allow fracking on their patch.
Ministers seem to have accepted that, once people realise exactly what fracking will do to their precious surroundings, they will protest - mightily.
But why, why should we be paid with our very own money to make us take what we don't want?
We will pay because the government is planning generous tax breaks for fracking companies. That is revenue lost to the public purse that could have funded something necessary - something that will have to be paid for by making some other need go short, or by raising taxes elsewhere.
The cost of cleaning up
We will pay because a proposal that fracking companies should be made to take out insurance bonds to cover the clean up of any pollution they cause has been over-ruled by the government. Mustn't eat into their profits too much, poor dears!
This allows energy companies licence to have the actual fracking done by a string of asset-free limited liability companies, that don't need to carry insurance. In the event of a big accident, they can declare bankruptcy and walk away, leaving the pollution to be cleaned up at public expense.
Costs of monitoring
Both ministers and fracking companies insist there is enough regulation to ensure the process is, according to Cuadrilla's boss, "completely safe". However any monitoring of the sites to ensure it is so will have to be paid for - not by the fracking company, but by publicly funded bodies such as the Environment Agency, already operating on shoestring budgets.
Costs of prosecutions
We will pay to take the fracking companies to court for the damage they have caused. But can we rely on our underfunded regulators to do that? All the more so when the fracking project has such strong support from the heart of Government? The alternative will be for ordinary people to take out private prosecutions - at huge expense.
Compensation to farmers
We will pay, via Defra, compensation to farmers whose stock, water and land have been poisoned - except it will be down to the farmer to prove that fracking was responsible for his loss before he can receive compensation.
In the United States that has proved almost impossible to do - because fracking companies refuse to release complete information as to all the chemicals they use in the process. And unless you can prove that every single chemical found in your poisoned water corresponds to the combination used by the company, you lose your case.
What is clear is that either farmers will have to carry the losses, or taxpayers will pick up the bill.
Costs of clean water
We will pay, via our water rates, for clean water to be provided to households after the water companies' normal water sources have been contaminated, the water companies having failed (see above) to prove that fracking was responsible.
For while some US fracking companies have provided bottled water "as a gesture of good will", they have not admitted responsibility and it is quite clear that the UK government will put business interests before those of the people.
We will pay more for our basic foods if harvests suffer from drought because the fracking companies have used all the water. In the US towns and villages have run dry because fracking uses so much water.
And when we get a period of heavy rain and floods (those 'once in 100 years' events that seem to happen every year or two now), the holding lagoons present at every fracking pad for storing toxic fracking wastes can and will overflow and poison the streams and rivers - as has happened more than once in the US.
Cost of roads
We will pay, via the Highways authorities, for road building and repair, to cope with the greatly increased and heavy traffic needed to service the fracking sites.
With not just equipment but water having to be trucked in, and waste water trucked out, Amec's Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Department of Energy and Climate Change estimated that there would be from 14 to 51 vehicle movements per day. That's between 3,600 and 13,000 a year, for each and every well.
The cost to our wildlife
We and our wildlife will, one way or another, pay for the pollution to our environment, because the government is stopping any funding to our local authorities for tracing and clearing up any polluted sites and water courses where they can't get the companies responsible to do it. Funding fell from £17.5m in 2009 to (under the current government) £2m this year.
The same government cut the small budget of the Environment Agency (responsible for the health of all our rivers and streams). A major part of the EA's role is flood defence work.
In the summer of 2012 Britain suffered exceptionally wet weather with thousands of homes flooded - not helped by the fact that flood defence schemes had not been built because of the cuts. They surely will not be able to cope with fracking pollution.
But hey, it's all fine ...
But everything's fine because, while environmentalists think we must make a choice between fossil fuels and genuine renewables (which most certainly do not include nuclear power), Energy Secretary Ed Davey thinks it is simply a choice "between more home grown gas or more imported gas."
And at the end of all this, we still have to pay our energy bills. And cope with climate change caused by the apparently unstoppable use of fossil fuels.
Lesley Docksey is a freelance writer who contributes articles to The Ecologist and other news media with international reach on issues of war, peace, politics and the environment.
See her other articles for The Ecologist.
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