Saturday, 6 June 2015

Andy Burnham gets it all wrong on fracking

If I were to write a blog post every time someone got things wrong about shale gas, I'd have little time for anything else. However, when that person is Andy Burnham, currently front-runner in the Labour leadership race, and therefore someone who could possibly be in charge of the country one day, I'm prepared to make an exception.

His comments on shale gas have been reported in the Guardian, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on what he's said.

"These things [fracking licences] just seem to be handed out like confetti"
Which is news to me, and most of the UK's operators I presume, because no licences to conduct fracking have been granted since the moratorium was lifted in 2012. Moreover Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) were last awarded in the 13th licensing round, in 2008. At which time Andy Burnham was himself in the Cabinet under Gordon Brown's government. So if he has an issue with the number of PEDLs granted, it's the fault of a government of which he was himself a key member.

Moreover, crucially PEDLs do not grant a company the right to conduct fracking. They grant a company the right to explore for shale gas - to drill rock cores from exploratory boreholes, conduct seismic surveys, etc. However, a whole range of additional permissions, from the EA, DECC and others are required before an operator is allowed to perform hydraulic fracturing. No operator has sought such permissions since the moratorium was lifted in 2012*. So it seems that "handed out like confetti" actually means "not handed out at all".

*onshore, that is. There's still plenty of fracking going on in the North Sea.

"In my area, we are riddled with mine shafts as a former mining area"
Which would be why any operator working in an area where coal seams are present has to seek a permit from the Coal Authority before it undertakes any activities (see this guidance from DECC).

"Where is the evidence that it is safe to come and frack a place like this? No fracking should go ahead until we have much clearer evidence on the environmental impact."
Andy Burnham couldn't really have chosen worse timing to make this statement, coming as it does literally days after the release of a major report by the US's EPA showing no widespread pollution from shale extraction, and that fracking can be done safely and responsibly. In answer to your question Mr Burnham, the evidence is available on the EPA's website, as well as in the reports commissioned by the Royal Society and Public Health England.

"How can we justify in this day and age allowing a multinational to frack a local community without their say so? The next step, beyond the moratorium, would be to give local people a much bigger say in whether or not it can proceed."
Shale gas extraction is subject to the same planning rules as any other development activity. The local county council must grant planning permission for a well site to be constructed. So local people already do have a say in whether shale gas can proceed, via the planning system. Also note that I'm not aware of any multinationals planning to frack "a local community". They are planning to frack rocks, which are 2 - 3km underground. This sloppy use of language in order to inflame opinion is worrying.

"If we are going to carry on with fossil fuels we are basically sending a message that renewables aren’t where we want to be."
That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the problem. Renewables ARE NOT where we want them to be, regardless of the "message" that we choose to send. Hopefully at some point in the future, with technological improvements, they will get there. Yes, having the political willpower is important, but ultimately the reason we can't rely on renewables is a technological one, not political.

"The Guardian campaign has got quite a lot of traction and is quite powerful"
As per the last point, the Guardian campaign has no doubt been successful within its own remit - to develop a talking point, and to sell newspapers. It may indeed have got a lot of people talking, and it may have got a lot of political traction. However, it won't make much impact in the real world.

The issue at hand is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels we burn. Yet renewables are no more effective and efficient, and no less intermittent, than they were before the Guardian's campaign began. No improvements in energy storage have been made because of it. Only increased investment in R&D will achieve this. A far more effective policy would be one that allowed a shale industry to develop, and taxed it appropriately, ring-fencing these revenues to be spend on renewables/efficiency/nuclear R&D. 

"I am pitching this as part of a pro-business, new economy move"
Personally, I don't see investment in renewables as pro-business. Yes, investment in this sector will of course boost jobs in this sector. However, if this investment is derived from increased energy bill surcharges, then it poses a cost, and therefore an economic drag, on most other industry sectors. It's at best a re-arrangement of the economy, not an overall boost.



  1. @environmentor_6 June 2015 at 12:12

    Great post James. It's just more of the same old political rhetoric that has dogged the British shale debate for the last few years. What we need is strong political leadership on energy as a whole, including renewables, new nuclear and gas. Or, perhaps better still, the establishment of an independent commission to take the politics out of energy altogether, as we suggested here before the election


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  2. Pro solar report shows gas as largest source of electricity in 2050
    Page 52
    Let's make it Lancs gas not Qatar LNG, will have 25% lower GHG

  3. Excellent post as usual Dr V, as you say, it is highly disturbing that someone who was both a party to the process in a previous job, and could potentially lead the country on this issue in the future, could get things so wrong.

  4. Even if we stopped burning fossil fuels we still need to dril and frack for oil and gas as its used as feedstock for many modern industrial processes. From medicine to fertiliser to plastics. Greenies do not see the whole picture or context. Their view of the world is very narrow, following only what they've been emotionally charged up with by their leaders. Such leaders mostly taking advantage of the naivety of greenies and filling their pockets in the process.

  5. It doesn't add up...10 June 2015 at 03:01

    I thought the only thing that was growing at the Guardian was the losses: the latest figures show an annual decline in circulation of 4.37% in May. With yesterday's announcement that we are to proceed with the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon at a cost of £168/MWh according to Pöyry's calculations there could be no clearer demonstration as to renewables not being where we want them to be. The power produced will show huge variations within each tide, producing sharp peaks of output mid tide, before shutting off while awaiting the next cycle - and the fortnightly variations between spring and neap tides as the moon orbit varies will give rise to massive variations in output per tide. That will leave conventional power stations struggling to fill in the gaps in the shark's teeth output profile - a role no doubt for CCGT power. Yet how much better off we would all be if we simply ran the CCGT station on our own gas (current price under 45 p/therm) and didn't waste the money on subsidies to Chinese construction firms.

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