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Exploring the "why" behind extreme energy

For eight months I've been travelling around England and Wales talking about 'unconventional gas' – shale gas[1], coal-bed methane[2] and underground coal gasification[3], which the media often erroneously conflate as 'fracking'[4]. This intensive period of work began last June, and continued into 2014 to meet the continued requests for talks. In particular I've tried to tour those areas next in line for extreme energy[5] developments – South Wales[6], The Marches[7] and the South Midlands[8].

Travelling has its fringe benefits. I get to read a lot; whiling away the hours on trains or in cafés, moving between consecutive events or home. 2013 saw the publication of the largest number of new scientific papers and reports on the unconventional gas issue. As I've been travelling to tell others 'what I know', I've also used that time to extend and refine my work – tailoring it to incorporate the new research published over the past year.

Thus far the debate around unconventional gas/fracking has focussed on pollution, flammable water, earthquakes, noise, toxic fumes, climate change, etc. As a result people mainly focus on the "what?", or at a local level the "where?", of the issue. My research leads me toward one single question… "why?"[9].

It's only by asking "why?", and finding the evidence to support that analysis, that we can make sense of what is otherwise such a senseless policy. Trouble is, that question produces a very unpopular answer!


PM's shale gas visit image via number10gov/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 License.

With regards to the "what?" and "where?" issues, there's plenty of evidence available to settle the arguments already highlighted by the media debate. For example:

The arguments for cheap and plentiful shale gas?[10] – they're based upon wishful thinking rather than hard fact, are biased towards the business interests[11] of the energy service[12] and investment industries[13] involved, cannot be supported by objective data from the USA[14], and are not supported by other energy economists[15], economic consultants[16] or even Cuadrilla's Chairman and Government non-executive minister, Lord Browne[17];

The lower carbon emissions from shale gas promoted by recent government reports?[18] – that's not what has been found from actual measurements in the field[19], and that specific claim is based upon an unrepresentative 'non-randomised' survey[20] by a university department which has previously fallen foul of reporting its conflicts of interest[21];

The argument that Britain can regulate fracking safely?[22] – that's not what experience tells us from the USA[23], and the United Nations Environment Programme has stated[24] that even with the best regulation pollution is still inevitable;

The lack of evidence for health effects from shale production, again trumpeted in recent government reports?[25] – again, that's not supported by recent studies[26], media reports[27], or investigations into the process used[28] to create that Government-backed health study.

The difficulty is that, irrespective of how much evidence exists to challenge the official/Government line, it's practically irrelevant because they don't want to hear it! It's for this reason that we must put the "why?" question instead.

Over recent months I've talked to action groups, local councillors, people in village and town halls, and students in lecture theatres. People often think that I do these talks just to tell people 'what I know'. In fact I also study people's reactions to what I say, and take mental notes on the questions and discussions afterwards. By studying these I can refine how I present and argue my work so that other people might understand it better in the future.

However, I find that of late I'm having problems presenting the 'fracking' issue. The evidence I'm reviewing, and my efforts to create a holistic view of the issue, are dragging me towards a specific vision of its underlying causes. Unfortunately both the general public and some environmentalists have problems following me down this route. I can't explain the full details within the space available here, but I will summarise the main points.

The greater unspoken issue here is the ideological clash between different views of economic theory. Under the traditional economic view, energy is just another price factor[29] in the economy. In contrast, recent research suggests that energy and resource prices are far more significant[30] within the process of technological development[31] and the creation of economic growth.

Energy's impact on the economy is perhaps ten times its nominal value[32]. It's high energy and resource prices which drive our economic woes today, not simply debt. Proposals for unconventional gas in Britain do nothing to change that[33]; shale gas is more expensive than the "conventional" sources we rely upon today. Therefore no matter how quickly we roll-out projects we're never going to solve our fundamental economic problems.

It's at this point that I experience the greatest resistance to the message regarding the relationship between economics, energy and the environment. That's because our ecological problems are multi-faceted; i.e., this is not just a carbon issue[34]. In addition to the ecological economics debate[35], we're now at peak oil[36] too – and that's going to force a resolution to this issue whether we like it or not. Irrespective of which ideological camp you're in, this message doesn't have a "positive side"; what we're talking about here is economic degrowth[37].

In short, if you want to know why the Government is so bent upon fracking, or setting fire to coal seams underground, it's quite simple really – there's no high quality fossil fuels left to burn to keep "business as usual" working!

Unfortunately resistance to the issue of "ecological limits" extends well beyond business and politics. Some environmentalists have difficulties with the realities of "limits" too. For example, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the book, 'The Limits to Growth'[38], there was a conference held in Washington[39]. Entitled, 'Perspectives on Limits to Growth 2012'[40], it was hosted at the Smithsonian Institute, and organised by the Smithsonian Institute and the Club of Rome… And the whole day was almost entirely ignored by the world's media and – rather inexplicably – by much of the environment movement!

As part of our opposition to fracking we have to be absolutely clear about why it will not do what is claimed of it. Yes, there's plenty of evidence to say that unconventional gas production is bad. There's equally compelling evidence that, irrespective of the option the Government chooses, we will still not solve our economic difficulties by any "growth" solution[41] either. It is economic growth and consumption within a finite environment which are the problem[42]. It's only by changing the economic process itself, to adapt to the ecological limits acting upon the human system, that we can tackle the inter-related issues of resource depletion, climate change and ecological degradation.

Extreme energy technologies do nothing to help us achieve those ends. They are a forlorn attempt to stave off the inevitable moment when that change in economic objectives must come.

References:

  1. Wikipedia: 'Shale gas'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shale_gas
  2. Wikipedia: 'Coalbed methane'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coalbed_methane
  3. Wikipedia: 'Underground coal gasification'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underground_coal_gasification
  4. Wikipedia: 'Hydraulic fracturing'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing
  5. Extreme Energy Initiativehttp://extremeenergy.org/
  6. 'Extreme Energy in South Wales'http://www.fraw.org.uk/extreme_swales/
  7. 'Extreme Energy in The Marches'http://www.fraw.org.uk/extreme_marches/
  8. 'Extreme Energy in South Midlands'http://www.fraw.org.uk/extreme_southmids/
  9. My current presentations around the extreme energy/ecological limits issue are title, "why?"
    for recent examples goto http://www.fraw.org.uk/mei/index.shtml#meilatest
  10. UK Shale Gas – where are we now?, Pöyry Management Consulting, 17th February 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/poyry_2014.pdf
  11. "Foot on the gas": Lobbyists push for unregulated shale gas in Europe, Laura Weis, Corporate Europe Observatory, November 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/ceo_2012.pdf
  12. Disclosing The Facts: Transparency And Risk In Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, Richard Liroff, Danielle Fugere, Lucia von Reusner, Steven Heim, Leslie Samuelrich, Investor Environmental Health Network, 7th November 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/liroff_2013.pdf
  13. Shale And Wall Street: Was The Decline In Natural Gas Prices Orchestrated?, Deborah Rogers, Energy Policy Forum, February 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/rogers_2013.pdf
  14. Unconventional wisdom: An economic analysis of US shale gas and implications for the EU, Thomas Spencer, Oliver Sartor, Mathilde Mathieu, Institut du développement Durable et des Relations Internationales, February 2014 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/iddri_2014.pdf
  15. A reality check on the shale revolution, J. David Hughes, Nature, vol.494 pp.307-308, 21st February 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/hughes_2013.pdf
  16. The economic impact on UK energy policy of shale gas and oil, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 30th September 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/bloomberg_2013.pdf
  17. Lord Browne: fracking will not reduce UK gas prices, Guardian On-line, 29th November 2013 – http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/29/browne-fracking-not-reduce-uk-gas-prices-shale-energy-bills
  18. Potential Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Shale Gas Extraction and Use, David J.C, MacKay, Timothy J. Stone, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 9th September 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/decc_2013-2.pdf
  19. For example see:
  20. Gas Industry Study: New EDF And Gas Industry Methane Emission Study Is Not Representative Of US Natural Gas Development, Not The Promised Definitive Study, Seth B. Shonkoff, Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, 16th September 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/pse_allen_2013.pdf
  21. For example see:
  22. About shale gas and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), Department for Energy and Climate Change, 30th July 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/decc_2013.pdf
  23. For example see:
  24. Gas fracking: Can we safely squeeze the rocks?, Pascal Peduzzi, Ruth Harding, UNEP, November 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/unep_geas_2012.pdf
  25. Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposures to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction, Kibble et. al., Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, Public Health England, 30th October 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/extreme/phe_2013.pdf
  26. For example see:
  27. For example see:
  28. Getting real about regulation – why it won't make fracking safe, Brian Davey, Feasta, 11th February 2014 – http://www.feasta.org/2014/02/11/getting-real-about-regulation-why-it-wont-make-fracking-safe/
  29. Wikipedia: 'Factors of production'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Factors_of_production
  30. On the practical limits to substitution, Robert U. Ayres, Ecological Economics, vol.61 pp.115-128, 15th February 2007 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/economics/ayers_2007.pdf
  31. The grand challenge of the energy transition, Ugo Bardi, Frontiers in Energy Research, vol.1 art.2, 29th August 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/energy/bardi_2013.pdf
  32. The Second Law of Economics: Energy, Entropy, and the Origins of Wealth, Reiner Kümmel, Springer, 2011
  33. The Purposely Confusing World of Energy Politics, Richard Heinberg, Resilience, 11th February 2014 – http://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-02-11/the-purposely-confusing-world-of-energy-politics
  34. Climate Change: The Wrong Top Priority for Environmentalists and Conservation Professionals, The Daly News, 27th January 2014 – http://steadystate.org/climate-change-the-wrong-top-priority-for-environmentalists-and-conservation-professionals/
  35. For example see:
  36. For example see:
  37. Wikipedia: 'Degrowth'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrowth.
    See also, The economics of degrowth, Giorgos Kallis, Christian Kerschner, Joan Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics, vol.84 pp.172-180, 21st September 2012 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/economics/kallis_2012.pdf
  38. Wikipedia: 'The Limits to Growth'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_To_Growth
  39. Looking Back on the Limits of Growth: Forty years after the release of the ground-breaking study, were the concerns about overpopulation and the environment correct?, Mark Strauss, Smithsonian magazine, April 2012 – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/Looking-Back-on-the-Limits-of-Growth.html
  40. Smithsonian Institute YouTube Playlist: 'Perspectives on Limits to Growth 2012'http://www.youtube.com/playlist? list=PL2817969CA87E5B47
  41. A Comparison Of The Limits To Growth With Thirty Years Of Reality, Graham Turner, CSIRO, June 2008 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/limits/csiro_2008.pdf
  42. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided?, Paul R. Ehrlich, Anne H. Ehrlich, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, vol.280 no.1754, 7th March 2013 – http://www.fraw.org.uk/files/limits/ehrlich_2013.pdf

 

Editorial Notes: Also cross-posted on the Ecologist here.

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