Fracking: The great debate

It’s either the answer to our energy supply problem, according to David Cameron. Or a toxic threat to the environment, if you believe Caroline Lucas.  So which of them is  right? Tom Bawden, Environment Editor, weighs the evidence

Environment Editor

The statements below were made by David Cameron, a fracking enthusiast, and the Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, who was arrested last week for protesting against potential fracking at Balcombe, West Sussex. The process releases oil and gas from shale rock by blasting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into it at high speed.

Will fracking lead to cheaper gas prices?

David Cameron: Fracking has the real potential to drive prices down … gas and electric bills can go down when our home-grown energy supply goes up.

Caroline Lucas: Prices are set to keep rising.

Tom Bawden: The Prime Minister’s claim looks disingenuous at best. Even an executive of Cuadrilla, Britain’s most prominent fracking company, was caught on tape admitting that a domestic shale gas revolution would be extremely unlikely to reduce prices, and if it did, it would only be by a “very small” percentage.

Mr Cameron cites the example of the US, where a shale gas revolution has driven down prices to barely a quarter of UK levels. But there is a major, game-changing difference between the UK and the US. The US is essentially an isolated market, meaning that an increase in supply will push down prices because gas producers have limited scope to export to a higher bidder.

The UK is plugged into an integrated European market through a series of giant gas interconnectors, while fledgling liquefying techniques are making long-distance export more common. As a result, even a massive increase in UK gas production would be unlikely to dent the prevailing European price. And as Ms Lucas points out, the global gas price could well go up in the coming decades, on the back of growing demand from Asia.

Will it be good for the economy?

David Cameron: Fracking will create jobs in Britain.

Caroline Lucas: [George] Osborne’s gas strategy looks like nothing short of a disaster for the economy.

Tom Bawden: Mr Cameron cites a study estimating that the shale gas industry could create 74,000 jobs, while other studies have made predictions as high as 150,000. The truth is, it’s virtually impossible to known until we have a clearer idea how much of the 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas estimated to lie underneath Britain can be  commercially extracted in the face of local opposition.

The answer to this question is unlikely to be known with any degree of certainty for at least a decade. Nonetheless, the chances are that it will generate at least thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of revenues in the coming decades. Whether this will provide  a net benefit or a net deficit to the economy is far less clear.

Ms Lucas reckons the economy would do much better if Britain redoubled its efforts on renewable energy, making the country a global leader in the area and freeing us from a dependence on potentially rising gas prices.

She might have a point. The British economy would be £20bn a year better off by 2030 if it favoured offshore wind over gas-fired generation as the driver of an essential overhaul of the country’s energy infrastructure over the next two decades, according to a recent report by the think tank  Cambridge Econometrics.  Will fracking lead to water pollution?

Cameron and Lucas do not share the same views on fracking Cameron and Lucas do not share the same views on fracking (Getty; AP)
David Cameron: Nothing is going to happen in this country unless it is environmentally safe.

Caroline Lucas: Residents close to drilling sites in Lancashire and Sussex have rightly expressed fears about the risk of pollution to drinking water.

Tom Bawden: The Prime Minister’s apparent assurance that fracking will be environmentally safe is technically wrong, on the basis that no method of natural resource extraction can ever be guaranteed not to cause some kind of spillage or pollution.

By contrast, Ms Lucas is right to raise the dangers that fracking could pollute drinking water – a point memorably brought home in the documentary Gasland, where a Colorado resident claims his water has such high levels of methane that it has become flammable – and ignites his tap to make the point.

Water pollution is a particularly grey area, partly because there are always natural pollutants, including methane, in the water, making it extremely difficult to definitely prove a connection. For example, regulators concluded the Gasland burning tap was caused by “biogenic” gas that has been detected in local groundwater for years, and had nothing to do with fracking.

Nonetheless, plenty of studies suggest a link between fracking and deteriorating water quality. One, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on the impact of drilling in the Marcellus Shale in the states of New York and Pennsylvania, found that four-fifths of nearby wells contained methane and that concentrations of gas were higher than in those further away. Fracking-induced fractures usually remain separated from ground- water aquifers by thousands of feet of rock, meaning that poorly sealed well casings are seen as the most likely cause of any water pollution.

Can fracking cause earthquakes?

David Cameron: There is no question of having earthquakes.

Caroline Lucas: In focusing entirely on the potential seismic effects of fracking, this report tells us nothing about the wider environmental impact.

Tom Bawden: It appears that Mr Cameron is unaware of the report Ms Lucas mentions – commissioned by Cuadrilla after reports of tremors in the Blackpool area – which concluded that it was “highly probable” that Britain’s first fracking activity was the cause. However, as she hints, earth tremors are a relatively insignificant concern – small, often likened to a lorry going past the front door, and pose a far slighter risk than, say, air, noise and water pollution and water shortages (the process uses huge quantities of water) and the industrialisation of the countryside.

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
people

Far-right organisation has defended its actions on Facebook

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher

£4848 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Outstanding...

Cover Supervisors/Teaching Assistants Secondary Schools in York

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors/Long Term Teaching Ass...

Science Teacher

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher...

Cover Supervisor

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Cover Supervisors needed for seco...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker