***This blog was originally posted on PSA Insight on 28th January, 2014***
Fracking – the panacea that will guarantee the UK’s energy independence for decades, or an environmental disaster waiting to happen? Either way, development of the energy source raises intriguing questions for scholars of many sub-fields in Politics. As a blog by the PSA Environment Group highlighted on the PSA website last year, fracking – or ‘hydraulic fracturing’ – involves blasting rocks with a mix of water and chemicals at high pressure, in order to release bubbles of gas that can then be used as an energy source. Yet the debates surrounding this new method for obtaining an old energy source could not be more contested.
In July 2013, fracking hit the headlines due to the popular protests taking place in Balcombe, West Sussex, over Cuadrilla’s exploratory investigation of a potential fracking site. (A site which currently looks set to be scrapped.) So why has the issue hit the headlines again? On Monday 13th January, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that local councils are to receive more money if they allow fracking to place in the local area. This proposal was followed the next day with the news that Cameron wishes to offer cash payments to those households most affected by fracking.
Cameron has stated that the Government is ‘going all out for shale’ by announcing that local councils supporting fracking will receive 100% of the business rates collected from the scheme. This is double the rate of 50% currently in place. Whitehall estimates value this bonus as being worth £1.7million every year for each site that is developed, while Energy Minister Michael Fallon has placed the value at £10million per wellhead if the fracking is successful. So in an era of ‘Austerity Britain’, why is Cameron so willing to make such a cash giveaway?
While leading Conservatives have claimed that fracking will reduce energy prices, these claims have been widely dismissed. Even Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey and the Chairman of BP, Lord Browne, have noted that energy prices will remain unaltered due to the well-connected gas market in Europe. However, fracking is likely to create jobs in constituencies across the UK, and facilitate greater energy independence from other states, making it a popular choice in Whitehall. This is where Cameron’s incentives to local councils come in. By ‘rewarding’ (or, as opponents would argue, buying off) local councils to support fracking, the UK can enjoy a domestic energy source for several decades to come.
There are significant environmental problems associated with this policy; contamination of groundwater, depletion of freshwater, worsening air quality and the poisoning of surface water are just a few of the charges laid at fracking’s door. Yet it is the political ramifications that are of most interest here. Firstly, from a party political perspective, the Conservative Party has long been seen (and presented itself) as a party that opposes centralised decision-making in favour of local control. By allowing councils to take 100% of the business rates, budget-strapped councils face little alternative but to make the most of these additional revenue sources. This has led some groups, such as Greenpeace, to argue that councils will no longer have the interests of local people at heart when making planning decisions. The proposals could be seen as facilitating a democratic deficit at the local level.
Secondly, from an environmental theory perspective, the proposals raise questions over the value of nature in the eyes of the British people. In the UK 4.5million people – around 10% of the population – are members of environmental organisations, making natural protection one of the most powerful civil society voices in the country. Yet by compensating those affected by the disruption of fracking, a price is placed on the value of nature. With many states recording swings towards postmaterialist values – that is to say, a prioritisation of those things with less intrinsic value than consumer goods – in recent decades the fracking proposals contrast sharply with such green sentiments.
Thirdly, if Western states do start to become energy independent once more, the role of Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries could be greatly diminished. Not only would these states face a weaker international position, but the foreign policies of Western powers could alter significantly. For those who felt the Iraq War said more about resources than of security, future such interventions could become less likely if the West is able to sustain its energy needs independently.
The final point reflects issues of global governance. The UK currently holds some of the most ambitious carbon reduction targets in the world following the 2008 Climate Change Act. This legislation necessitates sharp reductions in emissions every decade in order to mitigate catastrophic climate change. In the USA, fracking has dramatically reduced the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, as natural gas has been used to replace more carbon-intensive coal. Yet in the UK, where there is a very different energy make-up due to the ‘dash-for-gas’ of the 1980s, energy generation will continue to be produced from the same source (natural gas), resulting in no change to carbon emissions levels.
With the Government proposing to invest in an energy source that will do little to reduce the country’s carbon emissions, the question must be asked: “Where will the carbon emissions reductions needed to meet the UK’s legally-binding targets come from?” Few policies have been developed to ensure reductions in other key sectors such as transport, housing and industry. As such, significant questions will be asked over the UK’s ‘legally-binding’ emissions targets, despite the UK’s position as history’s biggest per capita emissions producer.
Although fracking may appear to be a regional issue based around small-scale disruption and localised pollution, in reality it raises questions that cut across the study of Politics. Those researching democratic politics, political theory and international relations should all take note of the ramifications of this high-profile phenomenon. One thing is for sure, fracking could transform domestic and international politics as we know it.