Is fracking the answer to our future energy needs?
Gary McFarlane, director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health in Northern Ireland lays out his cards in the fracking debate.
The issue of hydraulic fracturing to recover shale gas (or fracking as its come to be known) is, increasingly it seems, never, far from the headlines. It is a topic that seems to have resulted in diametrically opposed positions – those who are entirely opposed to it and those completely convinced that it is the answer to our future energy requirements.
It is now clear that the UK Government, fall into the latter camp. This includes no less than the Prime Minister who is perhaps Europe’s most outspoken political leader in favour of allowing fracking to be used in shale gas exploration. David Cameron has suggested that
Britain must “accept fracking for the good of the country” and that it could act as a ‘fresh driver’ for growth in the UK.
However it is difficult to find the objective foundations on which these assertions are based. The evidence base is, at best, scant. The potential detrimental impacts of this controversial process in terms of its impacts on human health are largely unquantified and unknown. Not only does the government seem to be gambling with the health of individuals and communities, but it also seems to be ignoring the possible impacts on our Climate Change Bill commitments. In addition, this government pledged to be “greenest government ever”. Was that simply electionerring rhetoric? Increasingly it would seem so.
The precautionary principle
Within CIEH our current policy position, and indeed advice to government, is that the precautionary principle must be applied with rigor to this process. That is not categorically suggesting that shale gas recovery should be forever removed from the agenda. However there are still too many unknowns and too much risk. We remain unconvinced that there is sufficient current evidence that mitigates the clear risks involved – not only directly to our environment but also potentially on health, our economy and our society.
As environmental health practitioners we subscribe to the mantra that prevention is better than cure – it is! We need further commissioned research to better understand the potential impacts and I welcome the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) two-year research programme into fracking, which was launched at the end of 2013 and aims to further the understanding of the potential impacts on the environment and human health from fracking projects and operations including construction, operation and aftercare.
What of sustainability?
Beyond the debate around the process itself, there is of course a bigger question in the longer term namely should we be incentivising and investing in an energy source that is ultimately unsustainable rather than investing in renewable energy? The Committee on Climate Change has previously estimated that within the UK we have the potential to supply all of our current energy needs from renewable sources. Such investment would bring sustainable jobs; the potential to export the expertise and innovation generated through such investment to the rest of the world; and ultimately a shout at a sustainable future for future generations.