Natascha Engel: It's time to stop pandering to myths about fracking

Posted On: 
20th May 2019

We need to make the case for shale gas as a safe, reliable and secure source of energy, says Natascha Engel

'It's not too late for the shale gas industry,' says Engel, 'It just needs a government that allows science to lead.'
Credit: 
PA Images

One thing that everyone can agree on is that fracking has got a bad name. It sounds awful and the incredible campaign against it has succeeded in demonising what is actually just a method of getting gas out of the ground – a process that has been around since the second world war.

And while shale gas is a fossil fuel, I would like to make the case for getting gas out of the ground beneath our feet as a way to reduce our carbon emissions and to help us transition as quickly as possible to more renewable and low-carbon sources of energy.

Before I do, I’d like to address some myths.

There is nothing inherently unsafe about fracking. It is no more or less dangerous than any other extractive industry. Yes, it uses water, but far less than paper and pulp-making or the drinks industry. Yes, it causes micro-tremors, but nothing more than you would feel walking over a Tube tunnel in London.

On the subject of water contamination – in the US they have fracked over a million wells; the examples of water contamination are nothing to do with the process of fracking. The famous “flaming faucet” is from a naturally methane-rich water well in a place that was called Burning Springs many years before the gas industry got there. Examples of water spillage are the same in any other industry that uses water.

But the most frightening stories are about health impacts; that fracking causes cancer and low-birthweight babies. It doesn’t, and there are no examples of it doing so. If there were, we’d have seen the world’s biggest lawsuits by now.

In fact, the opposite is true. The economic boon that fracking has brought to some of America’s most deprived parts has brought great wealth and with it better health.

Over a decade of fracking in the US hasn’t just made it an independent energy superpower; it has also allowed it to reduce its carbon emissions more than any other country on the planet – and we could do the same.

Today, 85% of households use gas for heating and over 60% use it for cooking. Until 2004, we fed our boilers and ovens with gas from the North Sea but that’s running out. We are currently importing over 50% of the gas we use and that is forecast to rise to 70% in 2030 – and up to 90% by 2035.

Renewables are nowhere near ready to fill that gap. Last year, less than 5% of the total energy we used came from wind and just 0.5% from solar. Part of the problem is that wind and solar usually generate electricity but only 20% of all the energy we use is electric – and most of that is made using gas.

Even then, wind and solar may be renewable but they’re not sustainable. The tower of a wind turbine is made of steel (for which you need coke or coal) and the blades are made with polyester (coal and oil).

This is why the Labour party is quite rightly advocating getting coal out of the ground in the UK to save the large carbon footprint of importing it on large tankers. But the same is true of gas, with the added advantage that gas is half as carbon intensive as coal.

Importing gas from Tobago or Qatar where it has to be liquified, tankered halfway across the globe, regassified and then piped into our network has a huge carbon cost which could be immediately eliminated by using UK gas instead.

It’s not too late for the shale gas industry. It just needs a government that allows science to lead regulations on seismicity so that the UK can get fracking, and an official opposition to apply the same rules to gas as they do to coal.

A safe, reliable and secure source of energy, jobs and industry in parts of the country that really need them, an immediate reduction in carbon emissions – the environmental case for fracking needs to be taken seriously.

Natascha Engel was the Labour MP for North East Derbyshire 2005-17 and is the former independent commissioner for shale gas