Blog Post: Frack Off

Pick two from three - acceptable, available affordable

The 'pick two' argument was originally advanced in relation to automobiles: good, fast cars won't be cheap; good, cheap cars won't be fast; and cheap, fast cars won't be good. A similar argument can be made in relation to our energy technologies - and fracking is one of many hard choices that we are going to have to make as we decide on the composition of our future energy mix. 

My former client and somtime mentor, Graeme Sweeney - who ran the renewables division at Shell - was fond of describing energy choices in terms of a 'trilemma' - his variation on the 'pick two' conundrum. The three points in play here are: affordability - using comparisons with oil to determine economic feasibility; availability - can an energy source generate sufficient power to contribute to energy security; and acceptability - the public's willingness to accommodate the impact of accessing an energy source. Here's the rub: affordable, available technologies won't be acceptable; available, acceptable technologies are often not affordable in comparison with other energy sources; and acceptable, affrodable solutions are often not readily available.


Tidal energy is acceptable and available - but a single tidal wave project under consideration by the goverment has a £25billion price tag attaced to it. Natural gas - the lightest hydrocarbon - is acceptable and (somewhat) affordable but our dwindling North Sea reserves mean this is not readily available to the UK. I would argue that fracking is an example of an available, affordable technology - and the headlines surrounding this prove that it is far from acceptable. 


However, if one puts the environmental considerations to one side (and that's a big if), the economic arguements for fracking are so strong that its introduction is, I believe, inevitable. The UK has huge reserves of shale gas - incredibly, the volumes in the North of England alone are almost equal to those of the US (where the fracking boom has contributed to a massive fall in the price of natural gas). A UK government unwilling to be held hostage to those Eastern European countries through which the gas pipeline travels and desperate to create the jobs and revenues that fracking will bring are not going to look this gift horse in the mouth too closely. So, I would encourage those alarmed by the prospect of fracking to offer more than intransigent opposition which will simply see them dismissed as 'tree-huggers' and, perhaps more damagingly, ensure they are absent from the table when the decisions about fracking are made.


This is not to say that I am in favour of fracking - at this point in time, I believe that the downside is unquantifiable and therefore unacceptable - but I see no value in resisting the research that is now taking place. I'm also saying that in seeking the perfect energy source, we are chasing a Holy Grail we will never find and that the discussion around fracking is one of a number of tough decisions we all face. Nucleur power is another: it seems ludicrous in the wake of events in Fukushima to be suggesting that this has a role to play in our energy mix but the fact is that Nucluer power stations do not emit CO2 in the course of generating electricity - and even eco-warries like George Monbiot have come round to the idea that nucleur power is a necessary evil in the efforts to curb the warming of our planet. 


These are very difficult, contentious issues but ones that have to be faced. I am a passionate advocate of renewable energy but I am also a realist. I would suggest that those opposed to shale gas extraction should be seeking to influence not whether fracking is introduced, but how it is introduced. And to point out that the full realisation of fracking revenues will require drilling in the South East - a place not even a Tory peer could dismiss as 'desolate' - and therefore an environmentally acceptable means of extraction needs to be found. 


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Comments: 1
  • #1

    Paddy Blewer (Friday, 02 August 2013 16:31)

    Great thought provoking piece

    Funnily enough, given some of the views attributed to a client, I'm not anti fracking per se. Your point about unquantifiable is well made - there isn't a strong enough regulatory regime in place to either quantify the potential for environmental danger, or prevent it happening. Frankly the UK onshore regs feel a little like the UKCS pre Piper.

    I think we are in agreement on this issue. Shale is probably a necessary evil, but it's down to the regulators to ensure risks are adequately managed.

    The thing that annoys me most about the debate is the deeply shrill tone of many sides. Your piece is typically thoughtful and nuanced - I wish more commentators could take your careful position. I blogged about this very issue here -

    I remain to be convinced on nuclear. This has got nothing to do with pollution and everything to do with cost. The clean up and decommissioning costs are astronomical and are paid for by the tax payer. Whilst it may have a low carbon cost, it has a MASSIVE capital cost, one that could perhaps be invested in technologies that are similarly low pollution but do not have a deeply poisonous nature and a half life measured in hundreds of years.

    As you say, there's no easy choice here. The chioce of environmental and capital costs are the scylla and charybdis for modern today's energy stakeholders. No one appears to have managed to copy Odysseus - unless it's the Scandies, who run their power on renewables and export their gas.

    This one will run and run.....