Thoughtful article on Fracking

The Times   December 12 2012

We should all give our backing to fracking

Alice Thomson

Shale gas will never be a panacea for Britain but it will bring invaluable energy – and jobs

Fracking. The word’s a disaster. I frack, you frack: it’s not a pretty verb. It sounds like something people do late at night in the back of a car in a lay-by. Even when you know that it is the extraction of oil and gas from underground shales by hydraulic fracture, it still sounds dubious.

Tory politicians appear to be becoming dangerously addicted. Only last week George Osborne announced in his Autumn Statement that he couldn’t get enough of it. But we don’t want the countryside to be covered in dark, satanic rigs. Fracking sounds ugly and destructive. No one is even sure it is going to work. So let’s ban it.

Actually a little bit of fracking is exactly what this country needs. After the earth tremors caused by exploratory fracking in Blackpool two years ago, I was deeply sceptical about its potential as an energy source but I now think we would be mad if we did not explore it.

First we need to dispel the idea that extracting gas or oil from land would be something alien to us. The Wytch Farm oil and gas field in Dorset is one of the largest in Western Europe. The value of onshore oil and gas production in the UK is around £650 million.

We’ve even had a pub in Lincolnshire called the Nodding Donkey with an oil pump in its garden. There are nodding donkeys dotted around the countryside, but communities tend not to complain. They are a local quirk, a tiny piece of Dallas, a few Stetsons high.

But won’t fracking be different? Not really. There are several potential sites in Britain, with the biggest in Lancashire and Sussex.

There is even one just under Mr Osborne’s Tatton constituency in Cheshire.

If a company decides to see whether it can frack in your area, you will have a painful 60 days or so while they are drilling into the ground. They will put up rigs, churn up the fields with lorries and drive you demented. But then they will go. Then once the bores have been made, all that remains is something called a Christmas tree where the gas collects before being passed into the grid. So fracking can be unobtrusive. Having seen sheep grazing round a clump of Christmas trees in a field near Gatwick, I’d prefer a Christmas tree or a nodding donkey to a row of wind turbines dominating my landscape.

But it is probably not, as the frackheads would have us believe, the cure to Britain’s woes. Their argument is that fracking has transformed America. There are already 40,000 fracking sites in the US and the results are startling. In 2008 the cost of natural gas was $8 a unit. It is now $3. In Britain it is $9.

One side-effect of America’s new love of fracking is that by using more gas the Americans have cut their CO2 emissions to 1990s levels, while those of the supposedly greener EU have risen. Another is that it has boosted jobs, not only by creating thousands in the shale gas business but by luring back industries that rely on cheap fuel.

The problem is that we don’t yet know whether it will work in Britain: testing in Blackpool was suspended after the tremors and has only just resumed. It is unlikely to be as big as in the US: the shales are thought to be thinner and deeper (Ed: actually 6 months from this article,  surveys show UK shale is thicker and bigger than the US). But it is worth trying. If fracking works here it will also provide jobs, particularly in the North West — where in places such as Blackpool male unemployment is double the national average — and bring down everyone’s energy bills.

If we don’t do something soon about our energy problems the lights could go out in the next 15 years. Britain hasn’t got the time to build nuclear reactors fast enough. Wind, waves and sun alone can’t sustain this country. More coal-fired stations would scupper our commitments under Kyoto. So we are already building more gas stations because they only take two years to complete and are effective all year round. If we don’t have our own gas supply we will be buying it from Vladimir Putin. Surely it is easier to try to find it in our back gardens and greener to use home-extracted gas.

The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in a joint report recently concluded that fracking was safe with strong regulation and Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, also supports the expansion of fracking. But the fracking debate now divides government departments, the tearoom and Downing Street. Owen Paterson, the Conservative Environment Secretary is a frackhead; Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary, is full of wind.

The politicians are trying to turn this into a fight between “right-wing energy” and “left-wing energy”. It shouldn’t be. Talk to the energy industry and they are far more sensible. Andrew Austin of IGas Energy, which already owns some onshore operations, says: “We’ve got to try everything and see what works or Britain will increasingly have to rely on Qatar, America and Russia for our energy needs.” That could add to household and industry bills just as we are recovering from recession.

With new forms of energy still in their infancy, this is not the time to be ideological by tying our colours to either the nodding donkey or the wind turbine. If it’s safe and it works, let’s just try it.