Pathfinders: Fracking – A Bridge Too Far?

Earthquakes in Blackpool, flaming faucets in New York State. The hot new single issue of this year is surely fracking. Barely anyone even understands what it is yet but already the Greens are against it, and after the Chancellor gave the provisional thumbs-up including tax breaks to the new ‘unconventional gas’ industry in his December budget speech, right-thinking citizens everywhere will know in their hearts that fracking is definitely a ‘very bad thing’.

Fracking, or methane gas extraction through shale rock fracturing, is a text-book example of how capitalism periodically gets itself out of a fix by finding new commodities or techniques to replace old or unprofitable ones. The technique of fracturing rock with explosives and high-pressure water is being billed as new, but it isn’t. Nor is horizontal drilling, which is necessary because shale deposits are spread wide but thinly. The thing that is new is that getting gas this way is now economically and politically viable. Economical because ‘conventional’ gas is unevenly distributed and getting harder to extract, while it looks like everyone apart from Poland has got oodles of this unconventional shale stuff. And politically? Well, we all remember what happened when Russia spitefully turned off Ukraine’s taps in the middle of winter, and we don’t want to go down that unlit alleyway.

Fracking seems almost to have come out of nowhere. As is common in capitalism, and especially the USA, the smart money was straight down the well-heads before anybody thought to ask any awkward questions about regulation. And of course, first thing you know, cows are dropping dead after drinking poisoned water, flames are coming out of kitchen taps, and earthquakes are spilling cups of tea in northern England. Panic duly set in. The UK imposed a moratorium. Sarkozy banned fracking in France. Quebec and Poland followed suit. The main performance may yet turn out to be a success but the overture was certainly a disaster.

There can’t be many people who don’t know that the world is hitting an energy crisis. Oil is peaking, and tar sand oil extraction is a filthy, polluting alternative. Gas reserves are limited, and coal though plentiful is the dirtiest carbon culprit of the lot. Now after Fukushima nobody wants nuclear. Along comes shale gas, like a rabbit out of a hat, and hey presto, the opposition lobby is immediately in business. Protesters in Balcombe, one UK fracking site, insist that it is ‘a very, very short term choice. We really should be putting money into renewables’. Caroline Lucas of the Greens complains of the government’s ‘irrational obsession with hard-to-reach shale and with keeping the UK addicted to fossil fuels’ (BBC Online, 6 December).

These people don’t know what they’re talking about. If the Greens think that this or any government is going to be able to turn renewables, currently just 3.8 percent of the national grid, into a major energy source right in the middle of a depression, they are up a tree. What’s needed is a practical solution to an existing energy problem, and fracking looks like being it.

It’s not clean, but it’s 50 percent less carbon-belching than coal. It’s not easy to get but it’s getting easier. The much publicised fire faucets and poisoned water were almost certainly preventable accidents and cowboy carelessness at the well-head, rather than leaks from the kilometres-deep seams.

Although it’s still early days and nobody’s really sure how big the deposits are, the current global estimate is of around 250 years worth of shale gas at current usage, with the likelihood of revision upward not downward. This changes the whole energy debate at a stroke. Now the talk is of a bridging fuel to a low-carbon future, ie renewables, that could be a more realistic century away. The Greens are aghast. Their whole strategy relied on states having no get-out clause, and this doable solution is the last thing they want. They believe, not without justification, that ‘realistic’ is politician-code for ‘never’, and that fracking will allow governments to ignore any investment in renewables for the foreseeable future. They are no doubt entirely correct in this appraisal, but that’s an argument against capitalist politicians, not an argument against fracking.

This being capitalism, one would hardly expect the development of fracking to be straightforward and problem-free. One must remember that it is not a matter of answering the call of global need, which is fairly steady and predictable, but rather the call of profit, which certainly is not. Thus the US fracking bonanza has already depressed local gas prices, causing a minor energy slump and shareholder panic, but worse, investment has also slumped in conventional drilling and liquefied natural gas (LNG) technology. Since there is a decade-long lead time in the energy business between investment and return, we get the ludicrous situation, which only capitalism could create, that 10 years from now there could be a global shortage of gas due to its very abundance deterring current investors. If you want an example of capitalist absurdity you could do worse than this one.

Beyond this, it’s not really for socialists to take a position on fracking, either pro or con. It’s not a class issue, after all. If regulated properly, which is a big ‘if’ in some countries, there doesn’t at present seem to be much of a case against it. It’s true that methane produces 25 times more global heating than carbon, and there is some early and tentative evidence that it might leak up through the soil (New Scientist, 24 November), but it’s not a long-stay gas so its effect is not likely to be as severe. If every new technology was abandoned directly there was a small accident, we would not have cars, planes, electricity or even steam power. Fracking is new, and the idea of blowing up the ground under our feet may seem intuitively alarming, but geologically speaking it’s fairly insignificant unless some fool drills into an existing fault, and besides, what other immediate alternative is there? If the world miraculously mined its invaluable seam of common sense and abolished the real disaster  of private capital accumulation through the market system, we’d still have an energy problem and fracking would still look like a good bridging solution. Only in that case the world’s people might take the question of renewables with rather more seriousness than short-term capitalist politicians will. If the Greens ever want their arguments to carry any force, they should get real and support workers to abolish capitalism first.

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