Not an either-or

Last week at Labour party conference, shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner pledged that, if Labour were to win the next general election, it would ban fracking outright. This, of course, has echoes around the world, including of Bernie Sanders who had promised, were he elected president, he would ban fracking in the United States.

While many British environmentalists have celebrated the move, it has faced backlash from the GMB union who slammed the move stating ‘carting gas across oceans is not good for the environment and not good for security of supply in the UK’.

They are right – on the very same day, the UK received its first shipment of shale gas from the US which arrived in Grangemouth, Scotland. They are also right to point out the hypocrisy in the decision and the huge environmental risks and costs of transporting huge cargo ships of gas across the pond, never mind the CO2 emissions of shipping, which is among the most carbon-intensive transport methods in the world. By buying fracked gas from the US you hereby support fracking in the US, which have far less environmental controls and regulations than in the United Kingdom. I remain a fracking sceptic, but if we are to use fracked gas I will rather that we produce it ourselves than importing it from the US.

Meanwhile, fracking enthusiast Nick Grealy, who runs the site Reimagine Gas asked, ‘Would “fracking”, the nasty sounding word for what is in reality a mundane process of onshore natural gas extraction, lock us ‘into an energy infrastructure that is based on fossil fuels long after our country needs to have moved to renewables’ as [Gardiner said]

‘It need not. It should not. It cannot. It must not. “Fracking” and renewable energy isn’t an either/or choice. It’s both’.

But a more important question comes to mind, one we are not even asking: as North Sea gas supplies dwindle, where will we get tomorrow’s gas from? Will it be from Norway – which is expanding into the Arctic to drill for gas, another sensitive subject for environmentalists? Will it be from Russia – which has very few environmental regulations in place and where leaks are a daily occurrence, with huge environmental consequences and huge costs , not least for indigenous communities? Or will it be from Saudi Arabia or Qatar – whose environmental record and climate change commitments are at best woeful and which commit human rights abuses and violations on a daily basis?

If we are to reduce our reliance on gas, how do we do it? So far the UK has made great strides in increasing the amount of the electricity produced and consumed from renewables. But when it comes to heat and transport it has hardly made a dent. The best scenario is, of course, setting tough new efficiency standards for newbuilds, so that future buildings’ gas requirement would be not only very low but in some cases non-existent. And, of course, there are really green solutions, such as ground source and air source heat pumps. But these are not ‘sexy’ and have not taken off in the way solar panels have, even though they are just as crucial and at least as effective for heating as installing solar panels on your roof is for electricity.

Reducing emissions to deal with climate change is a global problem. If we ban fracking in the UK but continue to import fracked gas from the US (where production of shale gas has a higher carbon footprint than it would have in the UK), we do not reduce the problem, but exacerbate it. We do have to start leaving fossil fuels in the ground. But if we accept some UK fracking, we can and should do this to a clear timescale of cutting our reliance on fossil fuels

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Anders Lorenzen is an environmentalist and a member of the Labour party. He tweets @ALorenzen

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Photo: Lee Haywood

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