Is fracking unethical?
I like to think of myself of one of the new breed of pragmatic environmentalists, who have freed themselves from the shackles of traditional big ‘G’ Green politics to deliver sustainability that works for everybody, not just the few ‘who get it.’ Central to this is the discipline of seeking an ‘objective’ view of any technology or issue before taking a position on it. I put objective in inverted commas as I fully acknowledge that any review comes with its own bias, but that does not mean objectivity is not a worthy goal.
So. Fracking. Shale Gas. Here’s a test…
The Greens are dead set against it, chaining themselves to gates at the first hint of a drilling rig. The UK’s political right sees it as the new Jerusalem, freeing the country from rising energy prices and driving a potential economic boom. Across the pond, Barack Obama has neatly framed shale gas as a medium-carbon transition fuel to a low carbon economy. But there is so much crossfire of opinions, so much noise, it is nigh on impossible to get any ‘objective’ (that word again) facts on which to base a reasoned view.
We’ve seen a similar saga unfold over decades with nuclear energy. Nuclear has neither delivered what was promised by its cheerleaders (energy too cheap to meter) or the environmental/social devastation predicted by its detractors (coal is thought to have killed many, many more). The reality has been somewhere in the middle. My hunch is that shale gas will also prove to be neither as good as its proponents claim nor as bad as its detractors purport.
My personal view, until I am persuaded otherwise, is that renewables must be prioritised over shale. As well as the carbon impacts of any fossil fuel (and the likely rebound effect of coal prices dropping), I am very concerned as to why the US has exempted the industry from groundwater protection legislation, and why the chemicals used are covered by commercial confidentiality. At the very least, renewables should always get a bigger state subsidy than shale, because they have lower externalities (costs borne by other people).
But there’s a philosophical point here. Can an energy source be either 100% ethical or 100% unethical? The greens would say fracking was completely unethical because the gas will contribute to climate change, the libertarian right would say it is ethical as it will increase wealth. Neither tribe is likely to shift position, so we can either take sides or do some technocratic analysis.
The technocratic approach says everything has an impact, the question is how much. A wind turbine will kill (a few) birds and many people hate the sight of them. Fossil fuels like shale gas are the main driver of climate change, which will (probably) have severe impacts on a huge number of people, let alone substantial damage to the natural habitat. Therefore on balance I believe the ethical choice is to favour wind turbines – sorry, birds.
Decision-makers use the technocratic approach because at the end of the day they have to make a decision which they can justify. To use a slightly clunky footballing metaphor, they don’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines waving scarves and screaming abuse at the other side – they’re on the pitch playing the ball. Pragmatic environmentalists get changed into their kit and go and help the team that’s shooting towards the right goal. Without players on the pitch, you’ll never score.