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What’s behind the fracking frenzy?

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The Tories are throwing money at some of Britain’s biggest firms to fund dangerous fracking projects. But their hopes of a “shale gas revolution” won’t benefit workers—and will create a disaster for the environment, writes Dave Sewell
Issue 2365
the Balcombe anti-fracking camp in Sussex has become a focus for the movement
the Balcombe anti-fracking camp in Sussex has become a focus for the movement (Pic: Guy Smallman)

A huge £13 billion gas terminal at Sabine Pass, Louisiana in the US, was designed to import supertankers full of gas from Qatar.

But within two years of opening its owners, Cheniere Energy, have decided to reverse the process. Instead it will export US gas to the rest of the world—starting with British Gas owners Centrica.

The new technique of fracking shale rocks to get at the gas and oil inside has created a fossil fuel boom in the US.

Shale gas now accounts for almost a third of gas consumed in the US. Gas prices have halved in five years. The US is projected to become the world’s biggest gas producer by 2015 and its biggest oil producer by 2020.

Former president George Bush was obsessed with energy security and self-suffiency. Now the US ruling class can control its own energy supply more easily because of fracking and access to Canada’s tar sands.

Billionaire Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal has warned that US fracking puts his regime’s future in jeopardy.

And politicians in Europe, jittery about their dependence on Russian gas pipelines, see fracking as an alternative.

The latest surveys suggest that shale in Bowland, northern England, could contain more than twice as much gas as the entire United States.

There is more in the south coast and Kent, Cornwall, South Wales and Scotland. Chancellor George Osborne promised this year’s budget would put Britain “at the forefront of exploiting shale gas”. “Shale gas is part of the future,” he promised. “And we will make it happen.”


Osborne slashed the rate of tax on extracting the remaining North Sea gas reserves from 81 percent to just 62 percent.

And firms that succeed in fracking Britain’s shales will pay less than half of that. If even a fraction of the shale is extracted this amounts to a subsidy of tens or even hundreds of billions of pounds.

The government encourages “community opposition” to block wind farms. But it pledges to help fracking firms provide “incentives” to people who get in their way.

The government has paid for hundreds of cops to help Cuadrilla Resources get fracking equipment into Balcombe, west Sussex, in spite of protests.

And these are not firms short of a penny or two. Cuadrilla has the fracking licence for the Bowland shale. Its chair, Lord Browne, is key Tory adviser and it is a quarter owned by Centrica.

Centrica’s other project, British Gas, makes £22 profit every second and warns that it will keep hiking up prices. Osborne and fracking bosses respond to concerns about fracking with the promise that it can kickstart the economy.

A recent survey of industry professionals called for a concerted effort to “educate” us about the benefits of fracking and the jobs it will supposedly create.

But fracking will create far fewer jobs than are being slashed in the public sector—and cost far more money. It is a very capital intensive industry, relying on few workers to a relatively large amount of equipment. 

In Britain we’ve only seen the construction of small numbers of rigs designed to test out whether a shale can be fracked. Each rig can only frack a small area of shale. So dozens or even hundreds need to be built within a few square kilometres.

This was relatively easy in the US. It had an existing stock of infrastructure for onshore drilling and vast tracts of land that was easy to exploit.

Britain’s shales are far closer to major population centres—despite former energy minister Lord Howell’s calls for fracking the “desolate” north of England.

So an average of 96 people leave in each square mile of key fracking state Texas—and just ten in North Dakota. But in the affected parts of north west England the figure is over 1,300.


More people will be at risk of the dangers of fracking­—such as earthquakes, water contamination and shortages. And the vast infrastructure required for fracking poses a risk to schools, homes and workplaces.

The battle being fought in Balcombe, West Sussex, could be a taste of things to come. Hundreds have protested against Cuadrilla’s exploratory fracking there.

There are campaigns in Lancashire, where Cuadrilla’s fracking is more advanced, and others almost everywhere it has been proposed.

North Sea gas and oil is rapidly dwindling, and a number of coal and nuclear plants are due to be decommissioned.

This is an opportunity for a rational energy strategy where ageing plants are replaced with renewables—especially wind power.

A simple programme of insulating housing, improving public transport and regulating industry can slash the amount of energy wasted. This would create far more jobs than fracking without putting people or the planet at risk.

Instead the Tories want a “dash for gas” that could tie Britain’s economy into fossil fuels for another 50 years. The carbon dioxide emissions generated in that time will stay in the atmosphere for over a century and warm the planet.

Fracking also releases methane—a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. To stop a catastrophic rise in global temperatures we need to cut emissions much sooner, and leave that gas in the ground.

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