"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Monday, 19 August 2013

Fracking? I don't know and neither do you

Like GMO’s fracking seems to be one of those things that people are either for or against and their attitudes, similarly, come with a passion totally out of proportion to their understanding of the pros and cons of the issue. Either they are convinced this method of extracting gas is going to produce environmental devastation, water contamination and Richter 9 level earthquakes or they see it as a benign technology able to deliver energy security and relief from the economic crisis. The fact is that it could result in all of the above, none, or maybe some of it, we really just don’t know.
Protests like the one at Balcombe in West Sussex have captured the public imagination and attracted demonstrators from all over the country many of whom seem to have an agenda over and above that of the local people who were initially concerned about the immediate impact of a test drilling site in their area and I can see this being a recurrent theme. Rural communities will not want any heavy industry spoiling their commuter belt idylls and so start a local campaign, this in turn will attract environmentalist ideologues who will swell the campaigner’s ranks and prevent any exploration or geological appraisal. But whilst I have sympathy with those who do not want such things on their doorstep if we are to ever know whether hydraulic fracturing is a safe and environmentally acceptable technique to use someone will have to accept that the preliminary research needs to be done somewhere near them.

Of course there is the other elephant in the room that is climate change and the assumption that any technology resulting in extracting more fossil fuels is necessarily a bad thing. Again, depending on the choices we make this could be a valid concern, but there are options such as substituting shale gas for coal, or using it to kick-start a hydrogen economy or even taking a short term carbon hit but direct the economic benefit towards greater investment in renewables rather than cheaper fuel bills. But unless we prove the technology and are willing to have an informed debate all routes to possible benefits, both environmental and economic, will be blocked by the NIMBYs and the professional activists determined to kill fracking at birth.
I’m not advocating for a headlong rush to shale gas extraction as the doom-mongers may well be correct in their beliefs. Even if they’re not it is perfectly proper that they give us pause for thought and insist we proceed with caution. But to not proceed at all based only on local self-interest, fear, ideology and precious little data is irrational and some controlled risk must be acceptable in order to understand what we’re really arguing about. In the meantime we should all be fracking agnostics.


  1. Good points Steve, I'm all for objectivity but the trouble is in the end I won't know who to believe. There will be "experts" on the for and against sides making convincing arguments and both will accuse the other of vested interests. I could take the time and effort to become an expert myself but even then I might look for evidence which confirms what I want to think. The older I get the more I think it's probably best to go with my gut reaction, do I think this is good or bad?

  2. My point is that until we try it somewhere at some controlled level we won't know anything. All the time we stop explorations at first base we are denying ourselves any empirical data. Sure people will spin the data to suit their own prejudices but at least we'll have something to argue about.

  3. This is Mark by the way, from Apsley St, can't remember where or why I used this blogging name. I think it has already been tried a little in this country and lots in America, it is either perfectly safe or or utterly appalling depending on who you believe. My instinct is probably to think "who is making the most money out of this?" and assume they are the most likely ones to twist the evidence but then that could be misguided on my part. I'm not saying I know the right or wrong of it, probably just that I find it almost impossible to make up my mind but then I've never been all that decisive.

  4. Is it possible to be simultaneously opinionated and indecisive :)

    The situation in the US is very different both in scale and geologically. There have been some attempts to frack in Merseyside I believe which were stopped due to minor earth tremors, although they were no worse than would occur naturally. I suspect in the UK each site would have to proceed slowly and be judged on its merits because of the high population density here.
    The motivations of big business are always a concern, so regulate it but don't dismiss it altogether unless we can prove that the risks exceed the benefits.As things stand all we have is opinion.

  5. You are probably right Steve but given their recent performance I don't put too much faith in regulators either. As for proving that the risks exceed the benefits I'm not convinced we can do that, someone probably had to prove that Fukushima was safe before they were allowed to build it. I know if everybody listened to me we'd never do anything but I think science is often used by large corporations to justify taking risks too big with the environment. I'm not arguing with you or anything, right up the top here it says nobody knows at the moment whether it's good or bad. I'm just suggesting that most or all of us probably never will know even if somebody proves it is safe.