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Dig in for fracking fight

Dame Vivienne Westwood protests outside the energy firm Cuadrilla's facking site in Preston New Road, Little Plumpton, near Blackpool after the controversial process got underway in Lancashire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday October 16, 2018. PA Wire
Dame Vivienne Westwood protests outside the energy firm Cuadrilla's facking site in Preston New Road, Little Plumpton, near Blackpool after the controversial process got underway in Lancashire. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Tuesday October 16, 2018. PA Wire

Last month the UK Government took the energy industry by surprise by announcing a moratorium on the quest for shale gas onshore in England.

The catalyst was the magnitude 2.9 quake that hit the Cuadrilla-operated Little Plumpton site in Lancashire on August 26. It was the third quake recorded in less than a week.

To its credit, the UK’s Oil and Gas Authority quickly shut down the operation pending a review which led to the moratorium.

The decision generated a range of reactions, with the green lobby fervently hoping that this is a forever decision.

But it’s nothing of the sort. Should the Tories be voted back into power on December 12, sooner or later an attempt will be made to remove the shackles, allowing the shale gas quest onshore UK to restart, making a mockery of the party’s greenwash pledges made during the current election campaign.

Protests will begin again and become increasingly well organised when Cuadrilla tries to resume operations at Little Plumpton.

If Labour comes to power, it is doubtful that the English shale gas hunt will restart. The SNP position for Scotland is already clear, much to the annoyance of the companies keen to prospect for shale gas in the central belt, where there once was a shale oil industry which petered out at the dawn of North Sea oil and gas.

I’m implacably against onshore UK “fracking”. As years tick by, it will likely be discredited as the energy transition becomes unstoppable.

There is no place for an industry as intensive, disruptive and potentially polluting as shale gas in these densely populated islands where even northern rural areas of England are crowded compared with the wide open spaces of the US.

But even there, where fracking has played a massive role in reversing what had been a long-term decline in domestic production, questions are increasingly being asked about its environmental track record.

Action is being taken in some locations to limit the industry and to question its claim that it has a valuable role to play in the US energy transition, which has been dumped by President Donald Trump.

US physician Brian Schwartz recently attempted to fire a shot across the fracking industry’s bows.

At a conference, he claimed that the planned build-out of the shale gas industry would make it more difficult, if not impossible, to meet fossil fuel use reduction goals.

“We might be able to manage the local health risks of shale gas development, but the climate risks are terrifying and I’m not sure we can manage those,” said Dr Schwartz.

Pennsylvania is the fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the US and is where the great US oil rush began. Pioneering prospector Edwin L Drake struck “rock oil” at Titusville in the Oil Creek Valley on August 27, 1859. The rest is history except to say that, over the past 10 or so years, shale gas has enabled the revival of the state’s oil and gas industry.

I am, of course, referring to the now legendary Marcellus shale play that covers an area of 104,000 square miles and stretches across Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and into the eastern portion of Ohio and western New York.

Shale oil and gas have taken over from classic oil and gas.

According to Dr Schwartz, a number of recent studies found public health impacts affecting people living near shale gas operations.

The UK is several decades behind the US when it comes to shale gas.

But, encouraged by the US success story, a succession of Tory governments rode roughshod over the British public in their zeal to create something similar here, except it has been a failure thus far. Protest organisations such as Extinction Rebellion and the international schools protest movement inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg are likely to win the day here in the UK.

But they are for now less persuasive in countries like China and Argentina where shale gas and oil exploration are now being afforded high priority at government level.

The climate change lobby is also struggling in Australia where, on November 18, China’s Xinhua News Agency reported that Australia’s resources minister had urged the nation to embrace a shale gas revolution.

If it’s tough for the greens in Oz then try China where authoritarian Beijing has for the past 10-20 years been actively promoting the pursuit of shale gas resources. Last month, China’s largest shale gas development, Fuling, had to that point put 421 wells into production and yielded more than 26 bcm of gas.

Finally, look at Argentina. In the run-up to the presidential election in October, oil and gas companies got the jitters, fearful that they would be stopped in their tracks if Peronist centre-left politician Alberto Fernandez swept to power.

Those fears proved misplaced and, today, President Fernandez, with Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner back in power as his vice-president, is actively seeking to promote further development of the huge Vaca Muerta shale formation.

Environmental/climate change is building considerable traction here in the UK.
That cannot yet be said about Argentina.

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