The stakes could hardly be higher, yet the public seems increasingly desensitised to the warnings
Fracking is the wrong answer to a good question: how can the world find the energy supplies to sustain economic growth and living standards?
It is perfectly plain that the global fracking boom – centred on North America – has dramatically altered the balance of power in fossil fuels. It has pushed the price of a barrel of oil lower, and lower in any case than it would otherwise be, such is the quantity of the oil and gas now being produced. The United States has regained its status as an energy superpower. And yet we know where all of that is heading – more carbon dioxide emissions, more global warming, another steps towards global armageddon.
The decision by High Court judges to allow fracking in Lancashire to go ahead, quashing an appeal against it by anxious residents, has a particular unfortunate timing. It comes, after all, only days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an urgent warning about the scale and pace of climate change, and how life on earth will be effectively extinguished over the course of the next century or so if global temperatures are allowed to creep even higher than they are trending. The stakes, in other words, could hardly be higher, though the public seems increasingly desensitised to the warnings.
In the case of fracking, the effects on water supplies, for example, and localised pollution are additional unwanted effects of this new technology. The people of Lancashire will not be the last to discover that energy security can carry a high price for some.
Yet the opponents of fracking have to answer the question as to where a reliable and economical source of energy can be discovered. Fortunately, the answers are readily available. Renewables – wind, solar and wave – are already making their contribution to our energy supplies, but remain too small a sector. The remaining issues are how to make them compete on price with hydrocarbons and, connected to that, how energy produced during peaks can be stored so as to match peak demand, and vice versa. The development of battery technologies has been impressive since lithium-ion technology emerged three decades ago, and it has much further potential. This would enable large amounts of electricity to be stored, both to meet household demand, for example, to feed fast chargers for cars without the need to bolster the capacity of the national grid.
As to cost, it is doubtful that, on their own terms, renewables will be cheaper than fossil fuels for a long time – but that is to neglect the greatest cost of all from burning carbon – the damage to the planet, which is beyond price. The failure of governments to fix this market failure adequately – whereby the damage to the planet is not reflected in the cost of burning carbon fuels is perhaps the biggest single factor in the degradation of our planet.
There are micro solutions too. When electric cars become ready to travel, say, 200 miles in winter between charges, we may reach appoint where they can be integrated with homes, so that “spare” electricity in them can be pumped back into he home or even sold to the National Grid, with a windmill and solar panels on the roof generating enough for most household needs. That may soon become a reality in the coming decades.
Energy supplies need to be resilient and economical. A variety of sources – carbon, nuclear, renewables – help to ensure security of supply. Energy generated and recycled in Britain, for example, will mean more energy independence, reduce the political risks associated with imports from the Middle East, and cut the trade deficit. There are many answers to the energy problem, then, and fracking need not be one of them.