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***This blog was originally published on PSA: Political Insight on the 15th August, 2013.***

The recent re-launch of the PSA’s Specialist Group on Environment Politics comes at a time in which environmental politics is on the front page of every newspaper in the UK every day. The thrust of hydraulic fracturing- or ‘fracking’- into the media spotlight has brought strong opinions from across the political spectrum, including those who would normally consider themselves to be outside politics.

So what is fracking?

The world- including the UK- is facing an energy crisis. Nuclear power stations are seen as risky, while uranium is finite. Coal and oil create pollution and dramatically exacerbate climate change. Renewables are described as inefficient and costly. Moreover, with the UK heavily dependent on energy imports- from countries as near as Norway and as far as Qatar- to fuel its economy, energy independence is an issue of national security to the government. As such, the possibility of an energy source located within British borders, which avoids the dangers of nuclear meltdown, is more climate-friendly than coal and oil, yet cheaper than renewables, would appear to tick all the right boxes. Fracking does exactly that, so it’s no surprise that Chancellor George Osborne has described the process as the gateway to an ‘energy revolution’.

Fracking is a relatively new technique in the UK, in which water (hence the ‘hydraulic’) is blasted through rocks, blowing them apart (hence the ‘fracturing’). As a result, bubbles of gas (typically shale gas in the UK) are released, which can then be used like any other natural gas. With the UK heavily dependent on natural gas following the ‘dash for gas’ during the 1980s, the possibility of vast volumes of the stuff under British soil could offer energy security for decades to come.

So why the media storm?

As with many energy sources, such as wind turbines and nuclear power plants, there is a degree of NIMBYism (‘Not In My Back Yard’) opposition to fracking. Fracking drill-pads are noisy, unsightly, and require trucks and other heavy vehicles to pass the area on a regular basis. Troublingly for the Coalition government, much of the shale gas is located in the South of England; an area traditionally seen as the Tory heartland. As a result, many local people in the area feel the Conservative-led government is neglecting the voters who had placed them in office.

Epitomising this sentiment are the protestors in Balcombe, West Sussex, who have set up a No Fracking In Balcombe Society (NO FIBS) and even sought to block the passage of trucks to the exploratory drilling site last month, gaining much media attention in the process.  As a result of such steadfast opposition in traditionally Conservative areas, it is no surprise that supporters of fracking in the Government have sought to look to other parts of the UK which will not jeopardise potential support in the next election. It was whilst arguing the positive benefits of introducing fracking to the North-East of England that Lord Howell – George Osborne’s father-in-law –described the North-East as ‘desolate’, thus drawing opposition from many in the North who were yet to encounter fracking in the nearby area and placing fracking under still greater scrutiny.

Yet it is not merely NIMBYs who seek to oppose fracking; many environmentalists have also come out against fracking because of a litany of potentially destructive outcomes posed by the technique. Locally, opponents cite contamination of groundwater, depletion of fresh water, worsening air quality and poisoning of surface water as dangers that arise from fracking. Principally, these are due to the chemicals which are mixed with the water that blows the rocks apart; chemicals that can then leach into water supplies.  In the US, where the use of fracking has increased dramatically in the past decade, two children in Pennsylvania have been banned from discussing fracking for the rest of their lives as part of a court settlement following their injuries caused by fracking. Such decisions raise questions not just about environmental politics, but freedom of speech as well.

There has also been debate as to whether fracking can lead to earthquakes in the local area. The US Geological Survey argues that the process can lead to small earthquakes, while the National Research Council finds that fracking itself is unlikely to cause significant tremors, but that the wastewater from fracking can do. The debate is very firmly open. In the UK, the causal link between fracking trials in November 2011 in Blackpool and earth tremors in Lancashire was found to be ‘highly probable’ by Cuadrilla, the company responsible for the fracking exploration. Yet, this was not found to be serious enough to maintain the moratorium on fracking there, which was lifted again in 2012.

It is not merely the local environment that may be damaged by fracking however. While consumption of natural gas is less carbon-intensive than the use of coal as an energy supply, a contested study by Cornell University found that 4-5% leakage from fracking wells is sufficient to cancel out this gain due to the strong greenhouse gas potential of methane rather than carbon dioxide.

Yet, despite all of these negatives, the UK remains an energy-intensive country, with citizens who oppose many other forms of energy supply as well. The resulting controversy is only likely to grow in future years, as energy security grows on the political agenda as a result of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and rising global temperatures.

Issues such as these highlight the crucial role played by environmental politics in modern Britain. Decisions about fracking are ultimately political decisions. With other challenges – such as biodiversity loss, acid rain, ocean acidification, deforestation, water and air pollution, climate change and genetic modification – featuring in the news on a daily basis, the significance of sustainability in political decisions has never been greater.

As such, we are very excited to announce that the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics has enjoyed a much-needed and widely-supported re-launch. Our first Group event will be held at the University of Edinburgh in November. Debate is at the heart of environmental politics, so many of our blog pieces- such as this one- are available on our webpage where they can also be commented upon.

To learn of latest events, papers and opportunities, please keep an eye on our website, or request membership of the Group through the PSA website. We also have a regularly updated Twitter profile, @psaenvironment.

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