Tuesday, 1 April 2014

The Royal Fracking Society

This blog takes a slightly more provocative title to raise questions about the role of the UKs Royal Society with respect to hydraulic fracturing approvals.

It is estimated that there are 11,000Km3 of extractable methane gas reserves in the United Kingdom. In view of increasing questions about energy security worldwide, and the reported economic boom for shale gas/oil in the United States,  the British government is keen to exploit these reserves as much as possible.

This gas will be extracted using a technique called Hydraulic Fracturing - or Fracking - which is proving controversial not least because of concerns about water supplies being contaminated by fracking chemicals, but health related issues, questionable economics and geological issues such as induced earthquakes. As as result there have been widespread protests around the world, notably in the USA and more recently in Europe and here in the United Kingdom.

Large-scale Fracking the UK is in its early stages and activists have been able to draw attention to the cause by protesting at the first few sites, most notably in Balcome in West Sussex and Barton Moss in Manchester. However, the government has already approved of over 600 Fracking permits and it will not be possible to protest at anything more than a small fraction of them.

Protests work, really by massing public conscience against (or in favour of) a cause rather than by physically forcing organisations to comply. The key thing is being able to raise a person's conscience enough to act. It is therefore politically important for the government to argue the case for Fracking: positively, by citing potential economic and employment benefits; energy security, cost and safety regulations as well as negatively by portraying protestors as being disruptive or irrelevant etc. At the moment there is little consensus on fracking amongst the British public.

Today I came across this report on Fracking approvals at Barton Moss in Manchester and one paragraph particularly caught my attention:

This 3-D seismic will also fulfil UKOOG Shale Gas guidelines, the recommendations of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers and is a requirement of the Department of Energy and Climate Change consent process prior to any shale gas hydraulic fracturing and flow testing operations being undertaken.

It looks to me that Fracking consent can only be granted following the recommendations of the Royal Society (amongst other organisations). Now my thinking is that the Royal Society's brief is that they are only allowed to object to a fracking operation on scientific grounds and the grounds they'd be asked to review would be its viability and potential safety.

However, because it is a scientific body, its responsibility is broader than a narrow remit given by the government; it can (and in fact has a duty to) object on any scientific ground if the scientific consensus warrants it. And, given that the consensus amongst (albeit climate) scientists is around 97% or more that the continued use of fossil fuels will be globally catastrophic, it seems to me that there are good grounds to make the case to the Royal Society itself and get them to act on the basis of their scientific conscience. Here it's important to state that the extra-remit grounds for objection would be on the basis of carbon emissions, not health, economic or geological concerns. The objective basis is that we cannot burn more than a tiny fraction of fossil fuel reserves without causing dangerous, essentially irreversable climate change.

Because, without their approval the DECC can't currently give consent and there's already a high degree of consensus. I imagine that if they were persuaded to publicly object, it would mean that the government would change the law so as not to require the Royal Society's recommendations, but this would have potentially severe negative consequences for British public opinion and also actual safety issues. This would be a major step forward for eliminating Fracking in the UK.

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