I was at a workshop in which we compared hydraulic fracturing/ fracking policy in many countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. One crucial point that arose from the focus on Germany/ UK on the one hand, and France/ Sweden on the other is that the debate has become relatively specific in some countries. In France and Sweden, the debate is quite broad: Sweden focuses on a broad opposition to fossil fuels and relatively low reliance on gas; in France, 90% of electricity comes from nuclear, and the debate is wider, focusing on hydrocarbons. In the UK and Germany (at least in our impression) we talk specifically about fracking as a technology – the ‘unconventional drilling’ side and focus very much on the uncertainty about the seismic activity and pollution caused during the process. Maybe we occasionally talk about fossil fuels in general but, as far as I can tell, not very often and not very well. The focus on the technology side of shale gas has often pushed the fossil fuel and energy mix question off the agenda.
This country-specific outcome is contributing to a profound global problem. In particular, look at the unintended consequences:
- The rush for shale gas/ oil in the US – they produced huge energy reserves and helped push the price down; the price of coal has become too high and the US now exports a huge amount to Europe.
- The uncertainty about the energy mix in the UK in Germany. Germany is phasing out nuclear and, for the foreseeable future, will burn a huge amount of coal until its transition to greater renewable energy. The UK has not made an effectively strong commitment to nuclear and also relies a huge amount on coal.
Look at these two things in tandem: the US fracks, uses the oil and gas at home, then ships over coal to burn in Europe. I like to think that this is not a decision that would have been made ‘rationally’ if they cooperated or each individual country consider their own energy mixes in a more holistic way.
The problem is that, at least in the UK, this kind of discussion gets lost in the excitement of fracking (and, in many cases, the usual party politics nonsense). Many (if not all) of us don’t want fracking in our back yard, but we might be happy enough with fracking in someone else’s. Perhaps some of us have vague hopes that, if we ban fracking, we will suddenly get all of our electricity from renewable energy (and perhaps burn less gas for heat in our homes). Some of us don’t care. Some of us want to use far less energy. Some of us are frustrated that we are making hugely contradictory choices (at least in the short term) by banning fracking partly on the grounds that you should keep fossil fuels in the ground while accepting that we are burning other fossil fuels from under someone else’s ground.
In other words, we do the debate a disservice if we love or hate fracking unconditionally. We need to think about the assumptions we make when we reject some fuels, and consider in more depth what else we can do. If not shale gas or nuclear power, are we happy to keep burning coal and importing gas? This is not my argument for shale gas. It is an argument for a better, more coordinated, national discussion on the risks and rewards of all parts of the energy mix.
This UK Government document give you a sense of the proportion of energy the UK imports. The UK is now a net importer of all fuels (see p3). This UK Government document suggests that we imported 49 million tonnes of coal in 2013, and that our natural gas consumption (850 TWh in 2013) – for homes, industry and electricity – comes as much from imports as domestic production.