Yesterday the GMB trade union joined the Conservatives in support of fracking, insisting that it “offers part of the solution to the energy crisis.” General secretary Gary Smith acknowledged the importance of climate change but dismissed full electrification as pie-in-the-sky. “The idea that the future is going to be all about electricity, or that we’re moving to a future simply about renewables, is just not true,” he told the New Statesman.
Smith is right to acknowledge the difficulties of full electrification, at least for the next several decades and particularly in areas like household heating and manufacturing. But its intellectual sloppiness of the first order to conflate the limits of wind and solar energy with the need to build a domestic fracking industry.
At present around 50% of all gas consumed in the UK is from domestic sources, mostly extracted from the North Sea. This domestic offshore gas has a lower carbon footprint than its fracked equivalent. While Smith rightly points out that virtually all gas imported from the United States is extracted through fracking, he neglects to mention this constitutes just 5% of UK supply (he told the New Statesman it was a “huge amount”). In other words, Smith is proposing that we use more gas which is fracked than at present. This isn’t climate inaction, or failing to decarbonise quickly enough – Smith and the GMB are proposing that we actively pivot to a form of gas that is dirtier than 95% of the gas we currently use.
It’s one thing to argue in favour of nuclear energy (I do). It’s another to see real promise in hydrogen (it could be the solution in areas like aviation and marine logistics). But it’s wholly different to lump those proposals in with an endorsement of fracking. This is, after all, an industrial process presently prohibited in France, Germany, Spain and New York state. Why? Because it emits vast amounts of methane for one – an element twenty-five times more powerful than carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere. At Cop26 in Glasgow last year, governments around the world agreed to reduce methane emissions, precisely because such a step was viewed as low-hanging fruit in the fight to stop total climate breakdown. Yet Smith thinks we should be producing more of it.
Besides the environmental considerations (which also include the need for vast quantities of freshwater – hard to envisage, given Britain’s creaking water infrastructure), there is no business or economic argument for fracking in the UK. Even Chris Cornelius, the geologist who founded oil and gas exploration company Cuadrilla Resources, told the Guardian: “I don’t think there is any chance of fracking in the UK in the near term,” adding how Britain offers very “challenging geology” compared to North America.
Meanwhile, none other than Kwasi Kwarteng, the new chancellor of the exchequer, said earlier this year that “no amount” of fracked gas in the UK would be enough to lower energy prices. Why? Because “private companies are not going to sell the shale gas they produce to UK consumers below the market price.”
Decarbonise the grid.
As a source of electricity, gas (whether or not it’s fracked) is hugely expensive compared to wind or solar – nine times more costly than the former, in fact. As a result, the priority should be decarbonising the electricity grid, adding not only more capacity from wind and solar, but nuclear too. In terms of electricity – which is a big part of the story, though not all of it – we should not be using gas. At the time of writing, around 50% of the grid is powered by gas. It should, and could, be 0%.
Besides electricity we do of course need gas for heating – and that won’t change for a decade or two. But given that 50% of our gas consumption already comes from domestic sources, we could feasibly meet UK demand through domestic supply if we used nuclear and renewables to substitute the gas presently used for electricity, and oversaw a rapid process of retrofitting buildings. This would obviate the need for fracking. Because a weakening pound makes imports even more expensive, buying overseas gas to burn for electricity is doubly stupid.
There is, in short, no practical or commercial argument for Britain to build a fracking industry, even if we ignore the awful environmental costs. The idea that doing so would create a stable, long-term industry is nonsense, particularly as renewable energy continues to get cheaper. In reality, it would be a volatile sector, prey to the caprices of global price fluctuations, and likely to collapse in a generation. In 2015, as the global price for gas fell, fracking companies across the United States laid off workers. What reasonable person wants that here?
Apparently unconcerned with the facts, Smith opined that “we should not get caught up in a bourgeois environmental debate driven by the bourgeois environmental lobby.” But it’s not only the “environmental lobby” that thinks fracking is a bad idea – there’s no argument for it, and by choosing to take an eccentric stand on this issue, Smith misses the chance to hammer home a vital message around nuclear, wind and solar. A green new deal would mean a jobs bonanza – but Smith and the GMB are guilty of the sunk-cost fallacy, having defended fracking for the best part of a decade. To admit they were wrong all along would take real character.
Rather than adopt a serious, considered position – as befits a trade union leader – Smith’s ramblings seem to consist of a desire to ‘trigger the libs’. That can be funny, of course, but it’s a stupid way to debate energy and industrial policy. The GMB is right on nuclear energy, but entirely wrong on fracking.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.