Opinion: Fixation on Fracking

Fixation on Fracking: Should fracking be getting LESS attention?

By Chris Friedler

Now that I’ve grabbed your attention, I will come clean: I’m not personally a massive fan of fracking. This might not come as a surprise giving the website you’re reading this on, but one thing that might be a little more controversial on an environmentalist website is this; I also am not a fan of the hype that fracking has been receiving by the environmentalist movement. Now before you either quote me in brackets as an environmentalist who endorses fracking (which I do not) or hating other environmentalist NGOs (which I also do not) let me explain.

From a climate change perspective, being opposed to fracking is no bad thing. Fracking involves the extraction of natural gas as a fuel, to be burned in electricity generation or for heating. That will not only push emissions up, it will also (as others have pointed out) ‘lock in’ gas to our electricity system. But getting angry about gas from fracking, or ‘shale gas’, and focusing exclusively on it, implies indirectly that somehow other gas that isn’t fracked is somehow fine, or acceptable. And herein lies the problem; focusing on fracking as a great environmental evil that must be vanquished pushes out other areas of attention. And it’s easy to do. It’s far more terrifying to imagine an area the size of the Isle of Wight being carved out of the ground to provide poisoning and polluting gas, than say, the need to install electric heating in people’s homes.

Put like that, it’s easy to see why fighting fracking is more romantic than fighting to install heat pumps, but this ‘fighting the good fight’ approach is damaging the environmentalist movement’s credibility in my view. It implies we only react to visible things that scare us, and haven’t taken a more holistic view of the whole problem. Polar bears are another example – while definitely a visible consequence of climate change, by posting it over the climate debate, it has crowded out the arguably more serious impacts such as extreme weather, ecosystem decline and water and food stress due to being a more digestible image of the problem. And by doing so, it dumbs down the problem. Let’s return to fracking for a minute. Say an eager new government comes into force in the UK. Seeking popularity, but not wanting to rock the boat too much, it promises to ban fracking in the UK. We environmentalists would be pleased no doubt, but in terms of climate change, all it would do is just make sure emissions didn’t go up further. Whereas those heat pumps, while far more boring to some, would make deep and sustained reductions in pollution.

Environmentalist and civil society groups are of course, free to choose what they want to campaign about, and that goes for DecarboniseNow as well. But we are granted this power to protect the environment by the public. We should be careful how we use it, and hopefully, for the best, not the most obvious strategy.