Ask a silly question…. Why the Royal Society totally misses the point on fracking
29th June 2012

Imagine this. A learned society publishes a report into domestic violence. They conclude that it is a hazardous activity. If you carry out an attack, there’s a chance that the victim may retaliate, and you could suffer injuries as a result. So it’s important to look at ways of reducing risk, through following correct procedures and using the right equipment. In other words, they advise, wear a hard hat to beat your wife.

But isn’t domestic violence wrong? Doesn’t it go against everything we stand for as a decent, moral society? Ah, say the boffins. That was outside the scope of our enquiry.

Sounds implausible. But that’s just what the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have done with their report on fracking.

These are the opening words of their report:

“The health, safety and environmental risks associated with hydraulic fracturing (often termed ‘fracking’)
as a means to extract shale gas can be managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation.”

On the carbon emissions associated with shale gas, the report is silent. Well, not quite. They explain that it was not within the scope of their enquiry:

“This report has analysed the technical aspects of the environmental, health and safety risks associated with shale gas extraction to inform decision making. Neither risks associated with the subsequent use of shale gas nor climate risks have been analysed.”

So they have looked at the ‘environmental risks’ of fracking, but not the most pressing environmental risk that we, as a country and as a global community, face: rising carbon emissions. This is despite the fact that fracking is hugely costly in carbon terms. Only today, the Committee on Climate Change launched their progress report, showing the UK needs to redouble efforts to achieve its statutory carbon targets. At the launch, Committee member Sir Brian Hoskins (who is, incidentally, a Fellow of the Royal Society) said that if just 3% leaks from shale gas fracking it’s as bad for the climate as burning coal. This research from the Tyndall Centre gives the detail on the carbon implications. And this work by the International Energy Agency shows that we need to leave remaining fossil fuels in the ground if we are to avoid dangerous levels of carbon in the atmosphere. This piece by Leo Hickman discusses the strange silence surrounding the climate impacts of fracking more generally.

The Royal Society report is an object lesson in how not to frame an enquiry. The first job of any such investigation should be to ask a meaningful question. The question they ask is so narrow that it misses the fundamental issues surrounding shale gas extraction. What are the impacts associated with the use (not the extraction) of shale gas? What part could or should shale gas play in the UK’s energy mix? How can we meet statutory carbon targets if we exploit shale gas? Fracking may be technically feasible, but is it publicly acceptable? The report is silent on any of these points, except for a rather whimsical plea for ‘more research’.

I thought long and hard about the domestic violence analogy. I don’t use it lightly. But I think the comparison is valid. You can wear a hard hat to beat your wife, but that doesn’t make domestic violence acceptable. You can follow the strictest safety protocols to extract shale gas, but that doesn’t make fracking acceptable. I expected better from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering.

About author

Rebecca Willis

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