Fractured future

  • Hydraulic fracturing provides cheap access to natural gas and has transformed the US energy industry
  • But in Britain, where financial benefits do not flow to landowners, the process of extraction has attracted fierce opposition from environmentalists
  • To frack or not to frack? That is the question. Or is it?

By Simon Barnes

At the heart of every marriage lies a truth: rows are never about what they’re about. The bemused onlooker thinks you are arguing about the right place to put the Corn Flakes or the wrong way to squeeze the toothpaste tube: the participants know they are arguing about past sins, ancient forfeitures of trust, and profound dissatisfaction with life itself.

And that is the truth about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The multitudinous objections to the process are not really about this violent method of reaching previously inaccessible deposits of natural gas. They are about the way we run the earth itself: about our junkie-like dependence on fossil fuels.

They are about two equal and opposite fears. (1) What will we do when we run out? And (2) what will we do when our continued use of fossil fuels has wrecked the climate for all time? In short, what will it be like when there really is no going back?

An anti fracking sign in Ryedale

Fracking reminds me of a line in the great spoof Western Blazing Saddles. Bart, the black sheriff, opposing unwanted development in the town of Rock Ridge, says: “Can’t you see this is the last act of a desperate man?”

He gets the reply: “I don’t care if it’s the first act of Henry V.” But all the same, Bart is right. And, in the same way, fracking really does feel like the last desperate throw of the dice for fossil fuels: it’s not all over! We’re not running out! All we have to do is drill down a mile or two, then drill sideways for a mile or two more, all the time blasting the rocks with water, sand and chemicals, which will bust up the rocks down below — and that will release torrents and torrents of lovely gas. Then we can burn it, make a lot of money, fulfil our immediate energy needs – and make a further contribution to the warming of the planet.

The arguments in favour of fracking are twofold. The first is negative: the suggestion that those who are opposed to it are ignorant and emotional, and/or acting on some hostile and prejudiced agenda. The second is about money.

Fracking is an economically viable method of obtaining energy. It has been operated with some success in the United States, where landowners have rights over anything extracted from beneath their property, which is not the case in Britain. If we don’t exploit our own reserves, we will end up importing gas: in short, we will let other people make money from a resource we could exploit ourselves.

This involves an unanswerable argument: if we don’t do it, somebody else will. It is one that has dictated a great deal of the way we run the planet and its resources. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to miss out on the chance to make money and exploit energy out of squeamishness.

And that is the heart of the fracking row. The violence of the method has triggered not just faults in the earth’s crust, but deep emotional and visceral responses in humans: this really can’t be allowed. This really is too much. It really is time we started rethinking. It really is time we started thinking.

Thousands of school children protesting about Climate Change march down Whitehall, London

The people from the village of Misson who have objected to the exploratory operations by the company IGas at the Springs Road site in Nottinghamshire have inevitably been accused of NIMBYism: Not In My Back Yard. But their concerns, though legitimate, are not what the issue is about.

It is not even about the damage to democratic processes that are caused by imposing things on communities that the communities don’t want: Misson Parish Council was consulted, their objections were noted –and completely ignored.

The largest issue is not the fracking process, nor the damage done to the local area, nor the damage done to local democracy. It is the very opposite of NIMBYism: more like Not On My Planet.

At what date would you place the start of the Anthropocene? This is the notion that human activity has created a new geological epoch. We have moved from the Holocene into the Anthropocene: an epoch defined by the way in which the dominant species has changed the planet it lives on.

The concept, not universally accepted yet, has nevertheless provided us with a stunning new way of understanding what is happening to the earth. Some put the start of the Anthropocene at 12,000 years ago, when agriculture first began in the Fertile Crescent of the Nile, the Tigris and the Euphrates. Others prefer a startlingly recent date of 1945: the year of the Trinity Test, the first detonation of a nuclear weapon, which took place in New Mexico.

The Trinity Site, New Mexico, where the US military detonated the world's first atom bomb

Still others prefer a date of around 1780: that is to say, the start of industry. The Industrial Revolution was fuelled by power, and the power came from the earth, from the stuff we dug up. Unimaginably ancient organic matter could be dug up and burned: humans harnessed the power to become an industrialised species living on an industrialised planet. We did it all thanks to fossil fuels.

One of the prices we are paying for this detonation of ingenuity is the alteration of the climate. The burning of fossil fuels creates emissions of carbon dioxide. An atmosphere richer in CO2 retains more of the earth’s heat than it did previously: as a result, the earth is getting warmer. Those who are not misguided enough to confuse climate and weather are aware of this: and increasingly aware that it matters. Sir David Attenborough described it as “our biggest threat in thousands of years”. Bigger than World War Two, bigger than the Black Death, bigger than the last Ice Age…

So what are we doing about it? We are burning more fossil fuels.

So how are we looking to the future? One way is fracking: getting more fossil fuel out of the earth, so we can burn that as well. Like an elderly person in a decaying cottage, we look at the roof, notice that it will be falling in soon enough, but add the magic words: “It’ll see me out”.

In February schoolchildren went on a day’s strike to demonstrate against climate change: they surely have a greater right to concern than anyone else on Earth. The issue of climate change and fossil fuels has become a generational issue, as the example of Greta Thunberg and her place in the climate demonstrations have shown. The question for the older generation is this: when Thunberg’s generation is older, how will they thank us?

Reader, have you ever been knowingly drunk? And, being so, have you ever said damn it, I don’t care, let’s have another bottle, I know I’ll regret it in the morning, but right now what I want is more drink, and more drink is what I’m going to have. But in this case it is our descendants who will have the hangover: suffering the after-effects of their ancestors’ excesses.

Digging brown coal at an opencast mine in Jackerath, Germany

And this is what the fracking business is all about: one more bottle for the already hopelessly drunk. So, as we consider fracking, we realise that we have a rather awkward choice to make. Do we carry on regardless, hoping for the best, in the knowledge that the best is rather a lot to hope for? Or do we have a rethink? Should we be concerned only with stuff that will happen in our lifetimes or in the next electoral term – or should we take a long view? Should we try and think on something a little closer to a geological timescale?

Desmond Tutu said: “We can no longer continue feeding our addiction to fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow. For there will be no tomorrow.” We have – perhaps since around 1780 – been committed to the notion that progress is an unambiguously good thing, and that progress is defined by greater industrialisation. We have reached a point when this orthodoxy is beginning to be questioned.

Not by everyone. For some the continuing exploitation of fossil fuels – while we develop other means of generating power – is essential for social as well as for financial reasons. Natascha Engel, the government’s commissioner for fracking until she resigned last month, spoke about the success of gas-based industries in Asia and about drilling for gas in the United States. “Why should we get it from the US and make them rich and we can do it for ourselves?”

She was dismissive of the small contribution to the nation’s energy needs made by wind and solar power and was hard-nosed enough to imply that squeamishness about the sources of our energy is profoundly against the national interests.

Barack Obama, when President of the United States, offered a less cynical refinement, referring to shale gas as a “bridge fuel” – one with lower emissions than coal, which would buy time until cleaner sources of energy could be introduced at bigger scale.

Most of those who oppose fracking as a matter of principle are instantly prepared to lift the discussion beyond the local, and beyond the practice of hydraulic fracturing. When I talked about the matter with Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth, he was there at once.

“All opposition to fracking starts with climate change. It’s the biggest issue in the world. We have to move further and further away from fossil fuels. We must leave the fossil fuels we have left underground.”

A carbon dioxide vapour release valve at a natural gas well site near Hope, New Mexico

An unnamed spokesperson for the local organisation Frack Free Misson said: “It is a backward-looking fossil fuel industry which poses innumerable threats to water, health and wildlife. It has contributed to climate chaos and its elimination will be a significant factor in slowing down climate catastrophe.”

I spoke to a protestor, not a local, at the gates of the Springs Road sites outside Misson who envisaged a post-fossil-fuel Eden, a state of jolly primitivism that is not without its appeal. (I’m a horseman, I’ll run the transport.)

That may not be entirely realistic, but the fact is that sooner rather than later we will be living without fossil fuels whether we want to or not; fracking is merely a way of prolonging the dependency. Is that a good thing? The question at once brings us to “the tragedy of the commons”: the way that shared resources are invariably abused. Fisheries get fished out because if I don’t take the fish somebody else will; by the same token we might just as well burn all the fossil fuel we can because if we leave off, plenty of others will keep on burning.

And that is the principle behind fracking; behind what George Osborne, when Chancellor in 2010, called “the dash for gas”. Let’s become Europe’s leader in gas extraction: if we don’t, somebody else will.

Meanwhile, Germany has chosen instead to become Europe’s and the world’s leader in the exploitation of renewables. That is to say, solar, wind and biomass: more than 35 per cent of the nation’s electrical demands are now met by such sources, though transport, heating and cooling lag behind.

Aerial view of a solar field in Kodersdorf, Germany

Bosworth was also keen to point out the “Cinderella factor” of energy efficiency. We have learned to be profligate with energy: in the developed world we treat it as a basic human right, like water from the tap, rather than as a priceless treasure. If we reverse that, we could do ourselves a great deal of good.

Nuclear power is, of course, the nuclear option. It is extremely expensive to produce, potentially dangerous, and has frightening issues with the disposal of its waste materials. It is also an industry that inspires intense local opposition, making it difficult and dangerous politically.

That leaves us with renewables: and the question of whether greater commitment to the principle of clean energy would lead to bigger breakthroughs in their exploitation.

Resistance to fracking inexorably leads to these big questions: questions about the future of our species and the planet we all live on. The process of fracking – of blasting the earth beneath our feet to yield up the last of its treasures – has aroused a great deal of opposition. And neither the measured nor the emotional arguments against fracking can be laughed off, neither by energy companies looking for profits nor by governments seeking to force these things on communities and the wider population.

So the energy industry asks: if you don’t want fracking, what do you want? Fair question. And one we need to answer.

At some stage in the next century or so, we are going to have to change the way we live because if we carry on as we are, fossil fuels will be running out and climate change will be running out of control. Either we carry on as we are – and that means accepting fracking, accepting any way we can to wring the last precious joules of energy from the poor old earth, accepting the continuing and increasingly violent changes in our climate – all the time knowing that the time for such a way of life is limited by supply and that continued exploitation will lead to disaster for our descendants.

Or we change our way of life. Right now, we actually still have a choice.

All Photographs by Getty Images

Further reading