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A Ban on Fracking Is Common Sense. Here’s Why

On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn released a video outlining how Labour would ban fracking across the UK. Far from utopian, a moratorium on the practice is already in place in Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Further afield it is prohibited in France and Germany.

For those familiar with climate change the most cited ‘greenhouse gas’ is carbon dioxide, or CO2. CO2 is the compound most responsible for planetary warming and rising concentrations of it mean global temperatures are 0.8 degrees higher today than they were 130 years ago.

Methane, while less frequently mentioned, is another such gas. It exists in far smaller concentrations, but it is even more problematic, trapping 34 times more heat than CO2 over a hundred year period. Disturbingly, atmospheric levels of methane have more than doubled over the last two centuries.

It’s with methane that fracking proves particularly calamitous. A recent study found that emissions of the gas from fracking operations in Pennsylvania caused the same climate pollution as 11 coal fired power plants. Elsewhere, in New Mexico, methane emissions from oil and gas wells were equivalent to 12 coal plants.

While fracking is abysmal from an emissions perspective, that’s just the start. Because like some biblical plague it also leads to earthquakes and poisoned water supplies.

On the former, the evidence is clear. In Oklahoma, a millennium’s worth of earthquakes happened over the course of two years, leading the US Geological Survey to issue a report concluding how a recent spate of earthquakes across America were the result of fracking.

It was because of seismic activity that operations were suspended in Britain in 2011. Back then, the area around a site in Lancashire experienced two minor earthquakes in two months. Within days of re-starting operations last week ‘microseismic activity’ returned. While remaining within ‘legal limits’, the fact such activity returned so quickly should cause alarm. You know things are getting weird when minor earthquakes are “not unexpected“.

Then there is water. Fracking requires tremendous amounts of fresh water – an increasingly scarce resource in an era of global warming. In 2010, it was estimated as much as 140bn gallons of water were used across 35,000 US sites. Yet even such wasteful profligacy is minor compared to the contamination fracking creates.

In a study by Duke University, “systematic evidence for methane contamination” in household drinking water was found near 60 fracking sites across New York and Pennsylvania.

Water wells half a mile from drilling operations were 17 times more likely to suffer methane contamination than those further away. Footage of flammable tap water is the visual symbol for this madness. The response from those in the industry? Methane contamination already existed in these areas, it’s totally normal. Just like weekly earthquakes in Blackpool.

Finally, there is the issue of waste. When a well is fracked as much as 80% of the fluid returns to the surface. This water is contaminated not only by the chemical mixture initially used, but also by salts and heavy metals deep within the earth. Estimates show that drillers in Pennsylvania created approximately 19m gallons of this waste water every day in 2011. Managing such poisonous material is almost as difficult as nuclear waste, and while it is less immediately dangerous, there is far more of it.

In short, fracking is dirty, destructive and expensive. Surely there is a preferable alternative?

Because modern conservatism is based on anti-utopianism – “you may be poor but at least its not the 16th century” – the reflex defence is to claim Britain either chooses to frack or gives billions to undemocratic regimes.

Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie articulated as much in his response to Corbyn’s video, tweeting “Saudi Arabia, Russia and other authoritarian regimes who need us to be energy importers would be delighted”. In a similar vein Conservative Home’s Mark Wallace claimed the video would “delight Vladimir Putin and the Saudis, while banning the development of new jobs and industries in the UK”. Putting aside that the UK imports ten times more oil from Norway than Russia, and 20 times more than from Saudi Arabia, this is absurd. Why? Because renewable energy is about to make fossil fuels history.

99% of UK solar capacity has been built since 2010. Over the same period, wind generation has gone from meeting 2% of our electricity needs to 25%. Scotland is aiming to generate 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2020,and last year the figure was already 68%.

Driving all this, besides the politics of Holyrood, are historic improvements in the price performance of renewable technologies. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) the costs of onshore wind have fallen by a quarter since 2010, while solar has fallen by 73%. With further falls expected, Irena anticipates all renewable technologies to be competitive with fossil fuels by 2020. In stark contrast to the fracking lobby the agency concludes that “turning to renewables for power generation is not simply an environmentally conscious decision, it is now – overwhelmingly – a smart economic one.”

Furthermore ,with a few geographical exceptions, fossil fuels won’t be remotely competitive with renewables a decade thereafter. Because of similar improvements in battery technology, non-electric cars will be increasingly rare around the same time. That’s not because of ethically discerning consumers, it’s just that clean energy will be much cheaper.

Just as a new runway at Heathrow won’t create jobs, fracking won’t give rise to new industries at home. Instead, Britain must accelerate a renewable revolution which mitigates climate change and underpins cheaper energy every year for the rest of this century.

Consider this: in just 90 minutes our planet gets enough sunshine to meet the entire needs of humanity for a year. Given we are mastering the ability to capture and store that energy more cheaply than digging up and burning hydrocarbons, polluting our water and destroying our planet seems like irrationality bordering on fanaticism.

It’s time for common sense and an end to fossil fuels. A ban on fracking is just the start.

Published 24th October 2018

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