February 5, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
Last week, MPs voted overwhelmingly against a bid to have all fracking suspended. However, this was not without controversy. Tessa Munt resigned from her role as PPS to Vince Cable over the issue (although that can also be put down to her need to retain her constituency, where fracking is opposed). It was also not clearcut, as Labour tabled a motion, which was accepted, containing thirteen new conditions that will need to be met before the extraction of shale gas can take place. There was also a proposal from some Ministers of an outright ban on fracking in National Parks. Feeding into this was a report from the Environmental Audit Committee, which warned of “huge uncertainties” about the environmental impact of fracking. Put simply, Parliament is attempting to have a proper go at putting fracking through a proper democratic political process before it is freely allowed, but in doing so it does raise questions about how our democracy works.
People often ask why, when the USA has seen their energy prices drop by two-thirds and their Carbon emissions drop to 1990 levels, we don’t just go ahead with fracking?
The reason is that the process – drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside, carries with it some dangers. Firstly, a huge amount of water has to be used. Secondly, the chemicals used can be carcinogenic and may escape into ground water. Thirdly, there is a possibly of small earth tremors. However, all of these are a result of bad practice, rather than a technique that is inherently risky. Good practice can be helped by the adoption of some of the safeguards that Labour amended to the bill last week. So, what’s the real problem?
The real problem, as explained by Caroline Lucas when she was protesting in 2013 at the Balcombe site of some fracking exploration, is that environmental campaigners distract energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources of energy. They argue that any process that involves further use of fossil fuels as sources of energy needs to be stopped now to force the UK to move away from them. Any use of fossil fuels add to climate change (which is why they argue that the USA’s reduction of carbon emissions to 1990 levels is irrelevant as those levels are still too high), and therefore is wrong.
So, the environmental campaigners can take advantage of the EU’s rules on any cost-benefit analysis – which is to use the “precautionary principle” – that risks should be assumed unless proven not to exist, to create obstacles to a process that could achieve many of their other aims.
Because if you look at the Green Party’s policy platform, they want to reduce poverty, so surely a policy that reduces future energy bills will help that? They also want to reduce our involvement in military alliances, which are often influenced by our need for energy, even though having our own source of energy will enable us to withdraw from those.
Which goes back to the point that the Green Party are still, at heart, an environmental pressure group. They don’t feel the need to be accountable for the policies they put forward or the campaigns they run as they are unlikely to be in Government. It is a wonderful aspect of our democratic system that they have achieved such an influence that we have a Minister for Energy AND Climate Change and they have an MP in Parliament, but it also means that democracy may grind to a halt, as the process of getting access to an energy source that could help our security and reduce poverty is blocked eternally.
Now, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I want it to be clear that there are consequences to that way.