On 23 October, the National Audit Office (NAO) has released a damning report into the future of fracking in the UK, showing that even in the terms it has been justified by, it will fall short.
NAO is an independent Parliamentary body which scrutinises spending and policy of other government departments and bodies.
Fracking, short for Hydraulic Fracturing, refers to particular methods of extracting natural gas.
High pressure fracking fluid — a mixture of chemicals dissolved in water — is pumped through a well and into rock to fracture it. This is generally done to shale, and it creates and widens cracks and fissures through which natural “shale” gas, and sometimes petrol, is then forced out.
An often associated method, Underground Coal Gasification (UCG), drills down into coal seams, often fractures them, and then sets them on fire. By limiting and controlling the supply of air and steam, and so oxygen, some methane is produced; plus hydrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and sulphite pollutants. Some of this methane is then captured.
When we need to rapidly be phasing out fossil fuels, pursuing inventive ways to extract more is harmful. And these forms of “extreme energy” extraction are even worse for global climate change than conventional gas or petrol extraction.
Fracking and UCG are very energy intensive processes, meaning the net CO2 produced per unit fossil energy created is considerably higher. On top of this, they create widespread leakage of methane, and other greenhouse gasses. Kilogram-for-kilogram, over a 20 year period, methane is 72 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2.
Locally, fracking often has bad effects. As the report shows, there have been continual, repeated breaches of the agreed limits on earth tremors — small scale earthquakes — by fracking. It also leads to pollutants in the air and in the water table, with serious impact on the health of local residents.
Local communities and environmental activists, such as Reclaim the Power, have been fighting attempts to get fracking off the ground in the UK for the last decade. Through direct action, public outreach, media stunts, and legal action they have managed to more-or-less stop it going ahead.
They have often faced harsh state repression, and corrupt government manoeuvring: local authorities effectively being bribed to accept it, and the government intervening to force it through. Workers’ Liberty activists have been involved and supported these actions.
NAO’s report recognises strains on local authorities in fracking areas, and plummeting public opinion on fracking, as major problems with it. The tireless efforts of environmental activists are largely responsible for these factors.
In the terms by which fracking is justified, the report was also damning. It found no evidence that prices would be lowered, uncertainty as to whether fracking could produce gas in meaningful quantities, and no plans for clean-ups if fracking firms go bust.
The one argument still made is that fracking could be important for “energy security”: for the UK to be self-sufficient rather than relying on energy imports. That self-reliance is a questionable aim in itself, but anyway could be achieved entirely through low carbon energy sources.
The NAO report found that “Carbon Capture and Storage”, a technology floated as a way of making fracking green, is nowhere near ready to allow shale gas to be burnt in a way consistent with its environmental targets.
Many countries around the world, including Scotland, have banned fracking. Labour have pledged to ban fracking immediately on getting into government, and we must hold them to it; and to large investments in green energy.
Shamefully, GMB union, the union which represents many workers in the energy industry, is pro-fracking.
We must continue to argue for it to oppose fracking, and instead fight for a worker-led transition including a jobs guarantee, retraining, and an expansion of green jobs.