Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Fracking is just the beginning: the rise of extreme energy

New extraction methods show the fossil fuel industry in confident mood. They are a new frontline in the fight against climate change, writes Charlotte Wilson

August 10, 2013
7 min read

A few years ago, in the run up to the climate negotiations at Copenhagen, the fossil fuel industry seemed on the defensive, with pressure to cut carbon emissions mounting. With energy prices rising and doubts being raised about the industry’s ability to increase oil production, it seemed like a dinosaur struggling to survive. Today that same industry is on the offensive and, far from facing constraints, is actively driving a massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction into new areas of the globe.

There is no better barometer for this sea change than ExxonMobil, the largest privately-owned oil company in the world. In 2008 Exxon was aggressively funding climate change denial and intensively lobbying against potential constraints on its business. Fast forward to last summer, in the wake of the farcical Rio+20 conference, when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson was giving a talk to the Council on Foreign Relations, in which he not only acknowledged climate change but embraced it as an ‘engineering problem’ and a business opportunity.

With oil prices still sky high and the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration surpassing 400 parts per million for the first time in human history this year, the facts on the ground remain grim. What has altered radically is the level of spin deployed to counter this reality, as even the pretence of action has all but evaporated. Now the focus is on the appearance of plans for action, principally through the promise of techno-fixes, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) or geo-engineering, in the far future.

Behind all this smoke and mirrors, there is a real world not amenable to such trickery. On one side increasingly extreme weather hints at what climate change has to offer, while on the other rising energy costs mark the ongoing depletion of fossil fuels.

But fossil fuels are not like a petrol tank of a fixed size, which we are burning up and will eventually simply run out. Tar sands, Arctic drilling and fracking demonstrate that as easy-to-extract resources are depleted there is always some more difficult-to-extract resource to take their place, if you are desperate enough. These harder-to-extract fossil fuels come with additional costs beyond their carbon emissions, however.

Extraction effort is almost always strongly correlated with environment destruction. This is well understood for the devastation wreaked, for example, on the boreal forests of Alberta by tar sands extraction, but is true of most energy extraction. Whether it is the shift to opencast mining as coal has become less readily available, or the push out into deeper water for oil, the result has been mounting pressure on the environment. Ever larger areas of the globe must be trashed for continuously diminishing returns.

The social impacts of these more extreme methods are equally troubling. More effort going into energy extraction means more labour and resources consumed. In the past decade the size of the energy sector has more than doubled, from under five per cent to more than 10 per cent of the world economy. Complex market and political mechanisms have obscured the truth behind the headlines: as the energy sector grows the rest of the economy must be squeezed, and those with the least political power are the first to suffer.

Shift to the extreme

The shift towards ever more extreme methods, as easier-to-get resources are exhausted, merits careful consideration. Where will it end? When the energy used in extraction exceeds that produced, at what point do you no longer have an energy source? In reality, severe problems arise long before that point is reached. Imagine a world in which the main energy source requires half the energy produced to run the extraction process. Not only will half of the whole economy be devoted to energy extraction but the level of environmental destruction will be terrifying.

The UK is fairly typical in that, at present, the major new threat is unconventional gas and oil (colloquially known as fracking): shale gas, tight (shale) oil, coal bed methane (CBM) and underground coal gasification (UCG). These methods are highly synergistic, requiring the same large fleets of advanced drilling rigs to be constructed. The common features include dense drilling of horizontal wells, some sort of intense stimulation (hydraulic fracturing or dewatering) and relatively small quantities of energy produced from each well, for only short periods of time.

Underground coal gasification, the most extreme method we face at present, involves setting fire to coal seams underground and bringing the toxic cocktail produced to the surface. The UK is ground zero with 21 UCG licences already sold, just off the coast, including next to major cities such as Swansea, Liverpool and Edinburgh. Unprecedentedly, the newest licence for sale is onshore, in the middle of the Warwickshire countryside, near Leamington Spa. One company, Five-Quarter Energy, plans to start drilling on the coast of Northumberland this summer.

ucg

The scale of all this is rarely appreciated. The most fundamental property of unconventional gas (and oil) is its distributed nature. Any one well will produce little gas and only for a short time. It requires thousands of wells to be constantly drilled, coating the landscape in well pads, to produce even moderate amounts of energy. The largest onshore conventional gas field in the UK was Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire, which had eight wells, but to produce the same amount of unconventional gas hundreds of wells would be needed.

Major impacts of fracking include leaking methane, toxic and radioactive water pollution and waste, severe air pollution, wholesale industrialisation of the countryside and accelerating climate change. However, the public discourse in the UK has largely revolved around one non-issue: whether fracking-induced earthquakes could cause surface damage. In the US the straw man is whether there is a provable link between water contamination and the specific step of hydraulic fracturing, regardless of the strong link to shale gas extraction as a whole.

This spin has effectively diverted attention from the massive issue of the cumulative impact on our society and environment. Even the academic system must be corrupted to serve the industry, with pro-fracking academic studies being published that have turned out to be covertly funded by the industry itself.

The fight heats up

Meanwhile, the fight against extreme energy is heating up. The rural village of Balcombe is next in the firing line, as Cuadrilla Resources looks to extend its reach from shale gas in Lancashire to include shale oil in Sussex. Threatened communities are getting organised to resist, following the lead of communities in Australia, which have had considerable success in halting the industry’s advance. While the forces arrayed against them are formidable, these efforts embody Dr James Hansen’s recent call to leave unconventionals in the ground.

While the impacts in rich countries may seem bad, they pale in comparison to what people in the global South face, who cannot afford to drink bottled water and are less insulated from the environmental consequences. The recent announcement that Essar Oil has obtained permission to drill 650 CBM wells in West Bengal, to the north of Kolkata, is just the tip of a looming iceberg. The area has close to the highest population density in India, similar to nearby Bangladesh, and is already highly water stressed.

Exxon’s CEO was recently quoted as saying, ‘What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?’, as if the future of humanity could be separated from the ecosystems on which we depend. In this looking-glass world, Exxon is the people’s saviour, finding us creative new ways to maintain unsustainable levels of energy consumption. In the real world, it is becoming increasingly clear that the future of humanity and the planet depends on keeping fossil fuels in the ground – which will require a complete transformation of the economic and social systems that are driving extreme energy extraction.

More on the UK’s extreme energy action network, Frack Off, at www.frack-off.org.uk

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency


286