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One prediction of where rising sea levels will end up at Cottesloe Beach, Perth Western Australia. Photo: Julie G via Flickr.
One prediction of where rising sea levels will end up at Cottesloe Beach, Perth Western Australia. Photo: Julie G via Flickr.
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Fracking: to save the climate, the gas must remain buried

Biff Vernon

26th May 2014

The fracking industry has a blind spot the size of an elephant, Biff Vernon wrote in this Open Letter to Mark Abbott, the MD of Egdon Resources - climate change, and the huge rises in sea level it will cause. 'Only carrying out orders' is no excuse.

Next year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the completion of the church spire. In another 500 years it will only be visible to the jellyfish.

Thank you for coming to Donington-on-Bain Village Hall in Lincolnshire on 21st May 2014 to present your plans for oil exploration at Biscathorpe in the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

And thank you for having the patience to listen to me politely for over half an hour while I told you to change your job. I found it an interesting conversation.

You and I both started our careers as geologists. You became a successful businessman and I a campaigner against the exploitation of fossil carbon. We have some common ground but we are operating in different paradigms.

You came to our community to assure us that you operated in a well-regulated industry, acting at all times within the law, in accordance with UK government policy, and that you took your responsibilities towards protection of the local environment seriously.

You think you can manage your planned operations in such a way as to produce little nuisance for local residents and with little risk to the natural environment including the world-wide rare habitat of a chalk-stream.

But why no mention of climate?

By and large, I believe you. There is the issue of low-risk / high-consequence events such as a major well-head explosion but let's keep fingers crossed and leave that to one side.

I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, to see no mention of global warming and climate change on your display material. When I questioned your colleague, Martin, who has responsibility for environmental protection compliance, it became clear that he was only concerned with the 'local environment'.

Somehow the atmosphere is not part of this. In common with other oil and gas companies involved in the UK prospect, you appear to be happy to engage with the public about the local environmental threats, which, perhaps correctly, you regard as manageable risks, but are reluctant to draw attention to global warming caused by greenhouse gasses, the end waste products of your industry.

Carbon dioxide, you might argue, is the responsibility of he who burns the carbon, not the producer. An arms manufacture would deny responsibility for the actions of the man with the trigger finger in the same manner.

That logic cannot be applied to fugitive methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas in the short term.

Have you never heard of the 'carbon bubble'?

I was also disappointed, and actually quite surprised, that you had not heard of Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Here's her website. Her job is to deliver an agreement between 194 nations at the Conference of the Parties inParis in December 2015, replacing the Kyoto Protocol, to provide a mechanism for carbon reduction that leads to a safe climate.

Her many recent speeches to the oil industry, governments and other significant players have highlighted the danger of the 'carbon bubble' and stranded assets.

These are matters that directly affect the profitability of your industry and as a managing director I am surprised that you are not keeping abreast of these developments.

You told me that you had heard of fellow geologist Jeremy Leggett and were aware of Carbon Tracker but, again, you seemed unaware of the significance of the issues raised. I suggest you seek a meeting. He can be contacted here.

Shell - 'climate change is real, but we choose to ignore it'

You pointed out that Egdon is a very small player and that these are really matters for the big boys. Did you read the letter from Shell last week? They say "In summary, Shell does not believe that any of its proven reserves will become 'stranded' as a result of current or reasonably foreseeable future legislation concerning carbon."

Thus they believe that Christiana Figueres will fail in her task and COP21 will not deliver the agreement required to limit climate change safely. Sadly, they may be right, but that will spell the end of civilisation as we know it and perhaps worse.

The consequences of failure have begun to be spelled out by the World Bank particularly in their report Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided.

Shell admit the problem in their 16th May letter: "We concur with the view in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that there is a high degree of confidence that global warming will exceed 2° by the end of the 21st century."

From our conversation, Mark, it seems to me that your position is aligned with that of Shell. You accept that global warming and the consequent climate change are real and are caused largely by man's emission of greenhouse gases.

Reliance on second-hand sources

You expect the continued use of fossil carbon, though declining over, as you put it, "the next few decades". You argue that exploiting the UK's resources of oil and natural gas, in line with government policy, helps the UK economy and energy security and the generated wealth can be used to speed the transition to a low-carbon future.

All well and good, if only we had the luxury of time. Sadly we don't; there is no longer a 'carbon budget' left. David Spratt explains this in his blog.

Last night the topic of ice melt came up in our conversation. You said that you had read about it on the BBC website. I was disappointed that you use the mainstream media as a filter for information central to your industry's long term future.

As a geophysicist, you are part of that small proportion of the population able to read und understand the scientific literature, even in a field not directly your own. Yet rather than reading the source papers you rely on journalism for a lay audience.

Large scale coastal inundation is already certain

I suggest you follow the references given here by Roz Pidcock at Carbon Brief. You will see that we are already committed to the loss of many of the world's largest cities and vast stretches of the best agricultural land to rising sea level, even if we stopped all carbon burning today.

On your journey to Donington-on-Bain, perhaps you visited the nearby market town of Louth. Next year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the completion of the church spire. In another 500 years it will only be visible to the jellyfish.

The areas most at risk are graphically illustrated in this piece published yesterday by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

'Only carrying out orders'?

Announcing the forthcoming UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York this September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "I challenge you to bring to the Summit bold pledges. Innovate, scale-up, cooperate and deliver concrete action that will close the emissions gap and put us on track for an ambitious legal agreement through the UNFCCC process."

He was addressing all of us but particularly those of us who are privileged to hold positions where we can make the required pledges. That means people like you, Mark, who have an influence in the fossil fuel industry as well as people like me who have the resources to campaign.

No matter how small our individual influence may be, we have to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Veteran campaigner, Bill McKibben, released his 'Call to Arms' yesterday asking that people come to New York in September, engaging in the democratic process that you talked about last night.

Democracy, Mark, cannot be left to an occasional vote (and I trust you voted Green in today's EU election) for as 20th century history has shown, the most evil governments can arise through democracy.

Your reasoning that Egdon acts within the law and according to the policies of a democratically elected government form a weak defence, the defence of 'only carrying out orders'. Ultimately we all have to take personal responsibility for our actions.

Time to step out of your comfort zone

So Mark, I think you are an honest man, trying to do your best for the world as well as for yourself. I ask you to step out of your comfort zone, study what real Earth-systems scientists are saying, unmediated by politicians or journalists, and confront the inescapable conclusion that we have to stop burning carbon pretty damn quick.

Use the resources at your disposal to turn our path so that you may one day say to your grandchild: "I was part of the problem but then I tried to be part of the solution."

It's a big ask, because the first step will be to forego submitting that planning application to drill for oil at Biscathorpe.



Biff Vernon trained as a geologist and is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner.

See the original version of this letter on Biff Vernon's blog.

See the full-size image for cumulative emission quotas.


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