The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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What the Frack..?

Sean Robertson gives his opinion on the fracking controversy

In Middle America a housewife turns on her kitchen tap. Flames shoot out of the faucet, singeing her eyebrows. The ground shakes and a massive hole opens up in the street. No it's not a natural disaster or the coming of the apocalypse but an incident of a type which are likely to become more and more common as oil companies attempt to keep dwindling supplies of fuel flowing using the modified techniques of Hydraulic Fracturing or 'fracking'. This is the process used to exploit previously unextractable deposits of hydrocarbons, mainly natural gas or methane. The process involves blasting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into shale deposits deep underground to release trapped gas.

In the US, water sources have been polluted by both methane released from the ground and by chemicals used in the fracking process, mainly due to inadequate barriers between the drilling well and aquifers.

These pollution events and environmental incidents, which include ground tremors, have led to worldwide mass protests against the practice with demands for safety and environmental protection. Protestors' demands have gone completely unheeded, with corporations and their political mouth pieces claiming the process is both safe and necessary to secure energy supplies despite a massive and growing body of evidence to the contrary.

In the coming year, the areas in which companies will be allowed to explore on shore oil reserves will increase dramatically, taking in the vast majority of England and a vast swathe of Scotland, running from the central belt to Aberdeen (licenses are already granted for the area around the Firth of Forth). The prime minister has cynically used the diplomatic crisis in the Ukraine to claim that Britain has to begin fracking on a nationwide basis because energy supplies from Russia are insecure. This claim was made despite the fact that many, including Green MP Caroline Lucas, have pointed out, Britain imports very little of its energy from Putin's regime.

The areas in pink on the map show the parts of the UK which will be offered for licenses this summer. The black areas are wells which have already been drilled. As you can see, this would constitute a massive expansion.


When Cameron's government was 'elected', they claimed that they would be the 'greenest government ever' and since then haven't so much as paid lip service to the idea. Clearly placing themselves on the side of Big Oil, the Con-Dems appear to have settled for a position of a kind of pseudo-Gaiaism in which the logic is that there is very little we can do to protect the environment, or if there was it's too late now so we might as well carry on regardless and let nature sort the mess out later. The government's environment spokesman, Owen Patterson, actually claims that climate concerns are down to people being 'emotional about the environment' and that we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries. In another remarkable claim which could make you laugh or cry depending on your emotional attachment to the planet, he made the spectacularly inaccurate and scientifically illiterate claim that climate change could be a positive thing because 'it would lead to longer growing seasons'. I suppose he could have a valid point. I mean all those people living in inland areas will soon be able to experience the sea side on their doorstep, and the obesity epidemic will soon be cured by all the mass starvation and that.

By this wilful ignorance they are clearing the road for their mates in Big Oil to quench their thirst for oil (and profit) at the expense of possibly millions of the poorest people in the world who will lose land and die of starvation or disease as a result of climate change which the IPCC claims that there is a 95% certainty is caused by man-made greenhouse gases.
Respected scientific publication, the Climate Change Journal, has reported that just 90 of the world's companies are responsible for 60% of global CO2 emissions released since 1751. This roll of shame contains all the usual suspects- Shell, BP, Gazprom and Exxon as well as nationalised companies such as Norway's Statoil.

In addition to the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions, other serious safety and environmental concerns have been raised. A research team study analysing the exploration of hydrocarbons from unconventional sources found that uncertainties regarding the safety of steel casing, cement or valves used to contain the extracted oil and gas and the chemicals used in the drilling process exist in the UK because safety data held by oil corporations is not available to the public. In Pennsylvania, where detailed studies have been completed, researchers found that 33% drilling operation sites were issued with Environmental Violation Notices. In the main these were centred around surface water contamination, land spills of chemical or oil and 2.6% of the wells suffered exterior well barrier failures leading to escape of toxic and/ or flammable gas into the environment and water. Tony Bosworth, of Friends of the Earth says "oil and gas well failure are widespread and that the best way to avoid not to frack."

Nine major oil spills were recorded for the 150 on shore drilling operations were recorded, 2 being caused by avoidable barrier casing failure. This is an astonishingly high rate of failure which would be particularly mind blowing if the fracking industry expands in the way David Cameron and his government want it to.

I'm not saying that it is beyond the realms of possibility that fracking could be carried out safely but it certainly won't be when the only motive is profit and the work is being carried out by such operations as BP, they of the Gulf of Mexico disaster, or their ilk. The chance of these resource rapists suddenly seeing the light and changing their ways and make the environment a key priority, particularly when the government of the day are so willing to bend over in front of them, is about as likely as Baroness Thatcher coming back from the grave and nominating Arthur Scargill for a Knighthood.

However, expanding fracking in the UK by any amount is a move in the wrong direction. This is because climate change is so critical an issue to our and future generations. We have to strive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the lowest level possible. To do this, the main thrust of our energy investment should be in alternative energy sources harnessing the natural powers of wind waves, tidal, solar and geothermal sources. Scotland has an estimated 25% of EU's renewable energy potential. These are resources that will never run out and could provide real, sustained economic security. Unfortunately a familiar story has dogged their development up until now - profiteering and market forces have led to a piecemeal and inefficient situation which is exasperated by the disregard by developers for local communities - instead of controlling the wind turbines around them they have them forced upon them and gain no discernable benefit from their operation. Energy prices rise while the real problem of climate change is left unchallenged.

A democratically run, publicly owned energy company could manage Scotland's oil so that it is used responsibly while at the same time unlocking the country's green heart, creating sustainable economic security long into the future. While not completely stopping oil production a national energy company would willingly and responsibly face up to the fact that our dependence on oil cannot continue. The limitless potential of renewables would also be a safer bet for pensions, national dividends etc- a national wind fund so to speak, to replace the one proposed for the finite oil resource.

A different vision for environment will be required in an independent Scotland if we are to build a socially just, sustainable society. Immediate action should be taken to stop the fracking expansion plans currently being tabled. Calling for an immediate moratorium on all new onshore drilling operations, a mass campaign is needed, linking up with similar campaigns in the rUK and uniting socialists, environmentalists and energy campaigners.

We should also argue for the formation of a national energy corporation run in the way outlined above with a focus on reducing energy use and dependency on oil removing all nuclear power and promoting renewables as well as economic sustainability, striving to make Scotland the jewel in Europe's renewables crown. In its short 300 year history, capitalism has presided over environmental destruction on a massive scale, from extinctions to deforestation and ozone depletion to climate change. It has shown that mankind has the ability to irreversibly alter the ecology of the planet.

With socialism, we could make sure those changes were positive, for the good of all the Earth's inhabitants.

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

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