Full frack ahead: UK government defies rebels

Despite strong warnings from experts and activists, MPs have passed legislation to make it easier for energy companies to frack for shale gas. Can we ever break our fossil fuel habit?

It has been described by critics as ‘a monster of a bill’, and one that makes a ‘mockery of democracy.’ But yesterday, the infrastructure bill, which would make it easier for energy companies to frack the UK’s shale gas resources to release precious pockets of oil and gas, became law.

It was the first vote MPs have had on the divisive issue, and a group of backbench rebels had been determined to derail government plans, expressing outrage at a clause allowing companies to drill under people’s homes without their permission. In the end, the government was forced to make some concessions.

But the vote had already sparked a wave of bitter recrimination. An influential cross-party committee of MPs had demanded a total ban on fracking — a moratorium — over fears about the impact it will have on climate change.

The more fracking is carried out, they argue, the more natural gas is produced and burnt, releasing poisoning greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and exacerbating global warming. Fracking, in stark contrast to the government’s pledges under the Climate Change Act, would make it almost impossible for the government to meet its targets to reduce carbon emissions.

The Conservatives have fought back, arguing that the process will drive down energy bills, create jobs and reduce dependence on imported gas. And because it is a cleaner fuel than other fossil fuels, it could wean us off our addiction to coal — eventually.

It is not simply a matter of greed. The Church of England also favours fracking, arguing that it could alleviate fuel poverty. ‘Blanket opposition,’ it has warned, ‘fails to take into account those who suffer most when resources are scarce.’

But others warn that it will simply make us more dependent on the fuels that are choking our planet. Earlier this year, the journal Nature worked out that to deliver a 50% probability of no more than 2°C of global warming this century, the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

Can’t touch this

The idea that we might simply pass up on the opportunity to exploit these treasure troves lurking beneath our feet is nothing but a daydream, some say. Humans are simply not programmed to sacrifice immediate gain and convenience. Until the black gold runs out or governments are given enormous incentives, our obsession with fossil fuels is here to stay.

That’s just defeatist talk, others reply. Nobody is forcing governments to frack: they could just as easily pledge to invest in greener, cleaner renewable sources of energy. Blaming human nature for our failure to take the hard path is nothing but a cop out.

You Decide

  1. If you were in charge of your country, would you allow fracking to go ahead?
  2. Have we left it too late to tackle climate change?

Activities

  1. Design a poster and slogan to succinctly sum up the arguments either for or against fracking.
  2. Draw a diagram that explains the process of fracking.

Some People Say...

“Progress always involves risks.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Fracking sounds like something best left to the experts.
Not at all. Fracking affects every one of us. It’s about where we get our energy from; how we light our homes and keep them warm, and how we power our computers and laptops. Lots of opposition to it has been from ordinary people who are worried about more pollution in their local areas, contaminated water supplies, and even earthquakes.
The risks can’t be that great.
Fracking has already caused two minor unexpected earthquakes in the Blackpool area. And history holds many examples of innovations that were adopted too quickly and later had serious impacts, innovations involving tobacco, pesticides and thalidomide, for example. While fracking may bring benefits, we shouldn’t just assume it will be ok because the government says so.

Word Watch

UK’s shale gas resources
The British Geological Survey estimates that there are over 4bn barrels of oil in the shale rocks of the South of England.
Divisive issue
Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — is a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep into the ground at high pressure to fracture shale rock. The first well was fracked in 1947 and more than 2.5m wells have been fracked since.
People’s homes
Those affected — those living above land where fracking takes place — would be offered payments proposed to be £20,000.
Concessions
These include environmental impact assessments, inspections and monitoring, and a stipulation that fracking can only take place at a depth of 1,000m or more.
Moratorium
A delay or suspension of an activity or a law.
Cleaner fuel
Gas emits half the carbon dioxide per unit of energy of coal.

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