Economic trends will not come to rescue Earth.
We shall shortly see the first license to drill for shale gas in Britain issued since 2019, when the practice was banned following a 2.9-Richter tremor at a fracking test well near Blackpool in Lancashire.
Overturning the ban is one of the first initiatives of the incoming UK Government under the new Tory leader, Liz Truss. It belongs to a package of demand and supply interventions aimed at addressing the high price of gas.
This article first appeared in Truth Out.
The message from Downing Street is clear. This government will not seek to lessen the hold of fossil-fuel corporations over citizens’ lives by transitioning from hydrocarbons through efficiency measures such as buildings insulation, ramping up renewables, and price controls on the energy sector.
Instead, it will arrange payment of the full market price for gas to the energy firms while subsidising consumer and business bills, particularly for rich, energy-profligate households.
The cost, estimated at £150 billion, will be loaded onto future taxpayers and energy consumers. It is the largest single act of UK state intervention outside wartime.
Given Truss’ market-fundamentalist instincts, this cannot have been easy. But she has coupled it with a laissez-faire thrust on the supply side: to tear up red tape and issue licenses to drill. The market, she believes, will resolve its problems as new supply brings prices back down.
The focus is North Sea oil, but fracking is part of the programme. Fracking also offers the incoming government an opportunity to throw red meat to Tory Party members and the Daily Mail: 'we’re going to bash the tree-huggers, we’ll goad them into setting up camps at fracking sites where the security forces will persecute and ultimately defeat them, just as Lady Thatcher did to the peacenik feminists at Greenham Common'.
The government’s rationale for fracking, then, has an economic and a political edge. Will either succeed?
On the economic side, the prospects are sufficiently enticing to have sent the shares of some fracking companies soaring, notably Union Jack Oil. Its very name is setting Tory hearts aflutter.
Some pundits are predicting a Great British gas rush. Shale extraction, claims the Daily Mail, may begin slowly but by 2037 could “eclipse” fossil gas output from North Sea wells.
In wilder fantasies, Britain will enjoy a US-style shale revolution, contributing to lower global prices and securing mega-profits for the fossil-fuel sector.
The sober truth is that estimates of the fossil gas trapped beneath Britain’s moors and available for profitable extraction are uncertain. They vary dramatically.
Economic trends will not come to rescue Earth.
One report by the British Geological Survey (BGS) in 2013 estimated that the biggest region, Bowland-Hodder, could contain as much as 65 trillion cubic metres (tcm).
A more recent BGS analysis revises the figure down to 5 tcm. The Daily Mail’s projection is based on one of four scenarios laid out in a publication by the National Grid; it casually neglects to mention the other three — all of which envisage fracking as supplying less than one tenth of Britain’s gas consumption by mid-century.
Whatever the quantity of fossil gas, its profitable extraction will require political action.
Fracking companies are lobbying the Truss government to trim and rescind regulations on planning, on earthquakes - in particular the requirement that operations be paused when they trigger a tremor above 0.5-Richter, and on rules that require local communities to give consent. The latter, according to one consultancy, “amounts to a moratorium for delivery.”
We can expect to see a bonfire of regulations, for the fracking lobby is pushing at open doors in Whitehall. Truss’s cabinet is based around the 'drill baby drill' faction of the Tory Party.
Its strategy is to fabricate a 'Ukraine War moment' in order to advance fossil-fuel agendas and take an axe to environmental regulations.
The cabinet includes Ranil Jayawardena, as Environment Secretary, who has consistently voted against measures to combat climate breakdown and against government support for renewable energy projects and, as Home Secretary, Suella (‘Cruella’) Braverman, who has called for Britain’s net zero target to be suspended.
Crucially, the business and energy portfolio was handed to Jacob Rees-Mogg, a climate denier and investor in fossil-fuel industries who champions the continued burning of coal and yearns to stamp out “the environmentalist obsession.”
He resembles no-one more than the cast of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year race and is driven by a sado-suicidal stupidity that may surpass even theirs, evident in his lust to squeeze “every last cubic inch of gas” from beneath the North Sea. Shale gas, viewed through Rees-Mogg’s monocle, is “very clean.”
The new premier herself, Liz Truss, used to work as a commercial manager for Shell, and her Tory leadership campaign was part-funded by beneficiaries of the political funding programme of that other British-based oil giant, BP.
When environment secretary in 2014-16 she slashed subsidies for solar farms, calling them a blight on the landscape. She has pledged to remove the so-called ‘green levies’ from energy bills, and she hired an aide whose previous position was at the Cato Institute in the US.
On her US tour four years ago when chief secretary to the Treasury, reveals the investigative news site DeSmog, Truss met with a succession of Koch-funded think tanks and lobby groups with a history of climate science denial, including the Cato Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation.
America, for Britain’s frackers, is the shining light, both in the profitability of its shale gas industry and in the Trumpian mode of flatly refusing obvious truths.
Jim Ratcliffe, one of Britain’s richest men and the owner of the chemicals giant Ineos, this country’s largest privately-owned company, defends fracking by pointing to “America” where they have “drilled a million wells and it’s been very successful, they’re not polluting things.” His spokespeople promise that Ineos would frack “safely and without harm to the environment.”
In fact, fracking would absolutely trash the environment, not only locally through vehicle traffic at drilling sites, water contamination and so on but globally through the CO2 emissions from its combustion and also from the direct escape of methane—an extremely potent greenhouse gas.
The methane leaking from Permian oil and gas wells in Texas and New Mexico alone, reports New Scientist, will accelerate global heating “by almost as much as the carbon dioxide released by all homes in the US annually.”
The idea pushed out by the gas giants’ PR departments, and parroted by Truss and by Joe Biden too, that methane is a “transition” or “bridge” fuel—a stepping stone from a carbon-black past to a green-energy future—is risible.
The “bridge fuel” myth has a political purpose beyond simply sanitising a greenhouse gas. The fracker faction that sets the tone in Truss’s cabinet must work alongside ambivalent or sceptical colleagues, such as the Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, and the junior minister for climate change, Graham Stuart.
And they must try to persuade a sceptical public, half of whom oppose fracking, against a quarter in favour. Painting shale gas as ‘clean’ is important for bridging these divides, and is ideologically central to their broader cause.
Politically central will be the bribing of residents in fracking localities, with the aim of turning them against their anti-fracking neighbours.
The director of Ineos has made the ambiguously-phrased promise “to invest the first six percent of the value of the gas back into the local communities.”
Also under discussion is a proposal to subsidise 25 percent of energy bills for residents living near fracking sites, for an unspecified time period. Dangling that carrot at a time of unaffordable energy bills in a run-down town like Blackpool, says Tina Rothery of Frack Free Nanas, is a cynical move.
How will the anti-fracking movement respond? Campaigners in Lancashire, Tina tells me, are preparing to “pull out all the stops” and “getting straight back into gear.
"We’re rebuilding our networks right now, and this week we’ll be gathering at the gates. We’re going to use every tool available—protest camps, blockades, demonstrations, and legal action—to stop them going ahead. We’re going to set up the camp again; we’ll be everywhere.”
The advantage we have, she goes on, is that we’re not building a movement from scratch but reviving an earlier successful one.
“We were huge in the mid-2010s, with around 400 groups. We protested here at the camp for a 1,000 days until fracking was banned, and our direct action was the inspiration behind Extinction Rebellion. We were helped along by friends abroad, especially in the US—we learned from one another and we’ll need that solidarity again.”
Another difference between today and 2011 when the original campaign began), relates Clara Paillard of the PCS union and Frack Free Lancashire, is that “now the biggest union, UNITE, has an anti-fracking policy.
"Plus there are lots of new social movements, on environmental questions such as Extinction Rebellion, the Youth Strikes for Climate, and Just Stop Oil, and on the energy-costs crisis, such as Enough Is Enough and Don’t Pay.”
This summer, in addition, has seen a revival of labour militancy. “So there’s the potential for bringing together a coalition of community groups, climate groups, trade unions and others. In this the anti-fracking groups can play a key role, as we don’t include only the direct-action people who can get arrested, we’re also the local residents and community groups.”
However, she warns, “the threat greater than fracking is North Sea oil and gas drilling. Anti-fracking must be part of the bigger campaign, not a distraction.”
Tina and Clara and the fracktivists are confident they’ll win. The new PM idolises Margaret Thatcher but her party is riven and her government will flounder.
Thatcher, during a decade of semi-successful GDP growth, rammed through reforms that could draw strength from their alignment with an emergent global accumulation regime.
Her party cohered around the neoliberal agenda, including energy privatisation, to which opposition parties later acceded. Under Truss’ premiership, by contrast, no new growth model is in view.
Brexit has been a lame duck, not a golden goose. An unpopular leader, she gained the votes of fewer than a third of her party’s MPs and less than half its membership—in a two-horse race.
On fracking she’ll find some support among Tory MPs and voters, but griping and grumbling too. Ripping up planning regulations is unpopular among Britons of a NIMBY persuasion.
If we do win the fracking battle it’ll be a minor skirmish in a planet-defining war. Oil and gas firms are sinking colossal sums into exploration and expansion.
The US government, beginning in summer 2021 and accelerating with the Ukraine war, has steered a U-turn on the auctioning of oil leases on public lands.
As if to gaslight environmentalists, the Biden-Manchin climate bill fires the starting pistol for a new circuit of drilling and fracking. In view of Washington’s hegemonic position and London’s role as current president of the United Nations Conference Of the Parties (COP), these policy shifts lend legitimacy to fossil-fuel expansion worldwide.
The U-turns on fracking in London and Washington expose as a delusion the idea that the long arc of capital bends toward sustainability. But economic trends will not come to rescue Earth.
When oil and gas prices plummeted in 2015, some hoped that the fracking industry would bite the dust. When they rebounded in 2021 the new faith was that this will expedite the energy transition, as renewables become cheaper (relatively) by the day.
Yet capital does not follow this logic. If it scents sufficient profit, the Chartist Thomas Dunning wrote in 1860, capital is “very bold.”
A ten per cent return “will ensure its employment; 20 per cent will produce eagerness; 50 per cent, positive audacity; 100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent and there is not a crime at which it will scruple nor a risk it will not run.”
If “turbulence and strife” or even enslaving human beings will set the tills ringing, he writes, capital “will freely encourage” it all.
Renewed investments in oil and gas will make a target even of ‘net zero’—let alone absolute zero—even harder to reach.
The current fever for drilling and fracking is fixing new masses of capital: in wells that will yield shale gas for ten or twenty years, in LNG terminals that take decades to repay their investors.
Their owners will fight tooth and nail to defend their assets. As recession squeezes global demand over the next year or two, and later as the new production comes on stream, gas and oil will become affordable again, but only until the next price spike, and the cycle continues.
Meanwhile, some of the trillions of dollars gushing into oil-industrial coffers will be earmarked for waging the ideas war against environmentalism, for purchasing politicians and swaying policies, and will thus ensure continuation of the catastrophic trajectory we are presently on, unless and until rebellions break out to stop it.