While the title of the new British government report Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It sounds cheery, the news it contained about fracking, among other environmentally dubious technologies, was anything but.

Fracking

With many of the risks of fracking understudied, a health or environmental disaster could be lurking. Image credit: UK Government Office for Science

The annual report of the government chief scientific advisor featured a lot of “better living through science”-type happy talk about scientific and technological advances, but warned, “Competition is becoming ever more fierce, vital global resources are dwindling and environmental problems are mounting, making innovation an ever-present challenge.”

It’s a case that University of Sussex professor Andy Stirling makes strongly in a chapter entitled “Making Choices in the Face of Uncertainty: Strengthening Innovation Democracy,” using fracking and the fossil fuel industry in general as an example.

“History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic—for instance, involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general,” he writes. “In all these and many other cases, delayed recognition of adverse effects incurred not only serious environmental or health impacts, but massive expense and reductions in competitiveness for firms and economies persisting in the wrong path. Innovations reinforcing fossil fuel energy strategies—such as hydraulic fracturing—arguably offer a contemporary prospective example.”

Saying that “a rich array of renewable energy technologies is available for addressing climate change in a diversity of radically different distributed or centralized ways,” he points out that “One of the main obstacles lies in high-profile self-fulfilling assertions to the contrary, including by authoritative policy figures. Amongst the most potent of these political obstructions are claims from partisan interests—such as incumbent nuclear or fossil fuel industries—that there is no alternative to their favoured innovations and policies.”

He says, “It is remarkable how many major global industries are building around once marginal technologies like wind turbines, ecological farming, super energy-efficient buildings or green chemistry. All of these owe key elements in their pioneering origins to early development by grassroots social movements.”

Yet earlier this year, one of those “authoritative policy figures,” British prime minister David Cameron, said that the country was “going all out for shale,” and he has proved it with aggressive actions strongly opposed by environmental groups.

A section in the report “High Level Case Study: Hydraulic Fracking” featured contrasting views—the “industry perspective,” the “NGO perspective” and the “science and engineering perspective”—that present a mixed and cautionary picture.

Not surprisingly, the industry perspective is as enthusiastic as Cameron’s.

“Provided it is exploited in an environmentally safe way, we believe that the country’s indigenous shale gas resources offer a secure and potentially competitive source of feedstock and fuel,” wrote Steve Elliott of the Chemical Industries Association. “Estimates suggest that UK shale gas development will require supply chain spending of £3.3 billion per annum and generate 64,500 jobs. Communities will also receive direct benefits from local shale gas development. It is now time for government and industry to redouble their efforts to address environmental concerns and explain the economic benefits.”

The NGO perspective, provided Harry Huyton of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, was a little less rosy. He said risks include “water demand in areas under water stress, causing low river flows; water contamination as a result of well-casing failures and surface spillages; pollution incidents as a result of waste handling and disposal; and the loss, fragmentation and disturbance of wildlife habitats.” He adds that environmental impacts in the U.S. have been “poorly studied” and that “we do not currently have an effective and sufficiently precautionary framework.”

Writing from the science and engineering perspective, Robert Muir of the University of Cambridge pointed to a 2012 scientific report to assert that fracking is unlikely to cause water contamination but there is danger from poorly constructed well casings and that potential seismic activity is no big deal—similar to that created by coal mining.

While the overall conclusion of the report was that fracking could be safe if properly regulated, that’s a big “if” and there is disagreement on what “properly regulated” means.

Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigner Louise Hutchins said it’s far from clear that fracking is adequately regulated.

“This is a naked-emperor moment for the government’s dash to frack,” she told The Guardian of London. “Ministers are being warned by their own chief scientist that we don’t know anywhere near enough about the potential side effects of shale drilling to trust this industry. The report is right to raise concerns about not just the potential environmental and health impact but also the economic costs of betting huge resources on an unproven industry. Ministers should listen to this appeal to reason and subject their shale push to a sobering reality check.”