It was two years ago that my ideas about fracking met with a few complications. Until that time, I was happy to take in the readily available information and choose sides in line with my regular moral matrix: corporate power, extractive industry, fossil fuels–like many in Britain, I was opposed to them. In many ways, I still am.
That was in the autumn of 2013, when controversial fracking plans in the West Sussex village of Balcombe, south of London, had just seen the U.K.’s only Green Party member of parliament arrested for participating in protests that blockaded the site from the country’s chief fracking company. In a time of such hot opposition, and keeping the company of those with political views unremarkably similar to my own, it was surprising to find myself at a dinner table where one voice–belonging to a renewable energy analyst–was insistent about keeping the jury out on fracking. He urged us to consider what the practice could mean for the struggle to cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change.
His reasoning was simple and twofold. Firstly, fracking for natural gas provided a potentially abundant energy source that was half as dirty as coal. Secondly, if Western nations invested time and money to further refine the method’s processes, China and India might follow suit by shutting down coal-fired power stations and converting to shale gas, leading to rapid emissions savings. That rationale has, in many ways, already played out in the United States, where a plentiful amount of shale gas has meant that no new coal-powered stations have been built in the last five years. That precedent–plus Obama’s climate plans–are likely to extend the barren stretch for coal technology into its already unclear, smoggy future.
Whatever the analyst’s confidence, I stuck to my guns. No technology exists in a vacuum; decisions do not get made on drawing boards, but rather after lengthy digestion in the bowels of vested interests, political expedients, and those environmental limits that companies are able to manipulate.
The second element that opened my mind to fracking arrived more gradually, led less by the environment and more by my concerns for geopolitics and global Islam. As someone of Turkish heritage who’s seen a sad, scary jump in political instability and killing as a result of Islamic extremism in Turkey and along its borders, a more urgent concern for the Middle East has tempered my occupation with climate issues. If fracked U.S. shale can force the price of oil down, and in turn deflate the power and legitimacy enjoyed by Saudi Arabia and those other Gulf states making up a fountainhead of extremist Islam, then should it play a greater role in transitioning away from oil, faster than renewables allow?
Anyone in the environmental movement knows how it feels to stress that human concerns cannot be separated from the concerns of our planet. We are one and the same–we need Earth. With fracking, however, I’ve found myself realizing the inverse can also be true: Environmental campaigning can sometimes neglect the human factors that must also inform decisions. Even if manmade climate change is the greatest threat to human life as we know it, the distorted impact of a century of oil from the Middle East has been similarly seismic in nature. A future of exclusively renewable energy is certainly still the goal–but might there be something to be said for fracking if it can not only help allay our environmental problems, but also some of the political issues that oil has created?
With oil prices dropping beneath $30 a barrel, it becomes hard to dismiss the key U.S. argument for fracking domestic shale: energy independence. As trade sanctions are lifted from Iran, threatening an increase in oil supply that will further suppress prices, there is room for optimism about what this could mean for the oil field fulcrum from which Saudi Arabia spreads its strict Wahhabi sect of Islam and its politics. Though the production cost (the simple costs of getting oil out of the ground) on a barrel of Saudi oil remains vanishingly low (and obscured–the country says it’s around $1, the reality is probably closer to between $10 and $20), the International Monetary Fund places the price per barrel necessary to balance Saudi Arabia’s national budget at $106. The figure is likely higher still after accounting for the full costs of placating and policing a repressed population and launching military actions in Yemen.
It’s premature to suggest we are at anything like the end of sinister, petroleum-dominated politics in the Middle East, but there are signs of change afoot. Back in 2006, a British government led at the time by Tony Blair and no doubt wary of upsetting a strategic alliance, ordered its Serious Fraud Office to call off investigations into a major London-based arms manufacturer accused of bribing Saudi officials in a weapons deal. In contrast, in late 2015, mounting public, media, and political pressure forced the U.K.’s Ministry of Justice to renege on a deal to sell training services to Saudi jails. While other deals (not least of which are arms supplies and police training) remain in place, with the low price of oil tripling the Saudi budget deficit in a year, and forcing the country into significantly increased borrowing, there are signs of a weakening position for a nation that New York Times‘s commentator Kamel Daoud referred to in 2015 as “an ISIS that has made it.” The increasingly clear potential for the globalization of Wahhabi extremism–whether in Paris, Brussels, failed states, or the refugee camps that abut them–has only underlined the need for changes in Western alliances that were already morally wrong.
At this stage I regain my senses, worried I am creating manna for a fracking lobbyist: Fracking cuts carbon emissions and puts checks on Islamic extremism? It’s probably not so simple. It goes without saying that–given a choice–I would rather we hit the price of oil with increased energy efficiencies, solar panels, and wind turbines. Beyond that, the carbon-saving credentials for fracked natural gas are probably negligible once you account for the “fugitive gases” leaked during extraction, notably the potent greenhouse gas, methane.
The issue of low oil prices can even confuse environmental issues at hand. While cheap oil nicely removes the market conditions in which, for example, Arctic exploration and drilling is worth considering, it also wipes out the demand for electric cars that increases with high fuel prices at the pump. This problem is particularly acute, because to build a totally renewable future we badly need to wean the oil out of our transport systems–which are currently much more reliant on fossil fuels than our electricity grids. Fracking itself is both instigator and victim of cheap oil, helping to create the increased supply that drives prices down to rates at which fracking itself ceases to be viable.
This is not, therefore, the type of U-turn that periodically rears its head in environmental discourse; a hydrocarbon variation on the one where the steadfast campaigner disavows the luddites in the movement and announces the necessity of nuclear energy, the need to get with the program of big industry. In some ways, I almost feel I’ve come to a position where I would genuinely like for fracking to work in the way that its advocates promise. The practice is, without doubt, not quite the future, but managed responsibly could it be what comes next?
Ironically enough, this less hostile position toward fracking is from where I find myself believing that it’s unlikely the industry will amount to much. If only from a know-thy-enemy perspective, it’s a useful lesson: Sometimes it is hard to see off an idea, because you are opposing it on the wrong terms.
Looking at it up close, fracking appears less a thundering juggernaut than an emperor with few clothes on. The most emotive arguments against shale gas–of earthquakes, poisoned water, and a snub to genuinely sustainable energy–have proven inadequate when faced with the equally evocative arguments the industry and mainstream politicians present. Away from the backyards where fracking is to take place, energy independence, ready availability, and the generation of jobs and tax revenues have (until recently) held effective sway over public opinion. Advised of heavy traffic to fracking sites, the public has envisaged jobs for truck drivers; warned of continuing carbon emissions and the urgent need to totally decarbonize, citizens and their politicians revert to the old impulse that sometimes we have to make sacrifices that include the environment.
However, as shale orders on U.S. railroad tankers dry up, and shale restructuring and bankruptcy services in Texas report an “uptick in business,” it is economic rather than environmental factors that appear to be pulling out the rug. “Companies used debt to finance operations and are now having real problems meeting their obligations,” said Michael Bradshaw, an expert on energy markets. “This means they can’t find finance to fund new activity. It’s not about the rocks “¦ it’s about the finance.”
So U.S. shale continues to struggle, with banks unwilling to finance operations on any but short-term deals that carry higher premiums. The reluctance is, implicitly, a judgment on the reliability of shale as a realistic energy source, rather than a technology that kicks in and becomes plausible above a certain oil price. Stuart Gilfillan, a geochemist who watches the fracking industry, said that price is double its current rate–probably $50 to $60 a barrel. Gilfillan, however, identified a need for perspective: “That oil will not go away,” he said. “When prices recover, the industry will rebound. This may result in a boom and bust cycle “¦ much depends on whether OPEC repeats their current strategy: increasing the oil supply to drive down prices and snuff out shale.”
Whatever the truth of that, it’s important to understand that fracking is not a globally uniform notion. Despite the similarities in extraction methods, there is no universally valid rationale behind the technology–what is true of fracking in one region differs in another. To impressionable politicians, however, it is an easy continuation of the narrative whereby energy has to be mined from the earth; a confirmation bias bolstered by vested interests eager to keep energy supply in the public imagination as a subterranean concern, unlocked by boreholes and drilling.
Such nostalgia can even play a part more locally. Poland, with a proud tradition of coal mining, has the European Union’s first commercial shale well (now struggling), while the coal state of Ohio has been at the fore of U.S. fracking, though residents fear groundwater contamination when fracturing fluids find their way into forgotten mine shafts. Fluctuations in supply also play a part; the Marcellus shale field in Ohio’s Appalachian region, with vast gas supplies and close proximity to the energy demands of New York and the East Coast, is likely to remain profitable much longer than other operations. On the far side of the country, at the Monterey reserves in central California, estimates of recoverable reserves have dropped by an embarrassing 96 percent. Texas, meanwhile, believes its wells can competitively face oil prices at even $30 a barrel.
In the European Union, the French and Germans have banned fracking, while overtures in the north of Spain are meeting staunch opposition from communities still living from the land. Bulgaria has a nascent, grassroots anti-fracking movement, drawing funds–apparently–from the Kremlin, with Russia eager to consolidate its markets for natural gas; meanwhile, Bloomberg Renewable Energy reckons Sweden has shale reserves to last an impressive two-and-a-half centuries. But when reserves are aggregated across all of Europe, there is only enough to meet scarcely three decades’ demand. Furthermore, its high-population density arguably makes the entire continent of Europe totally inappropriate for fracking.
Despite this, the practice has found serious support in the United Kingdom, where the Conservative Party government has trumpeted ambitious ideas about shale sovereign wealth funds–a concept that’s absurdly far-fetched at a time when well-organized opposition means licenses cannot be secured for even exploratory wells, let alone commercial operations. Stuart Gilfillan said that U.K. shale has moved far slower than the industry expected, but notes a prospect for change. “We can see some optimism that 2016 will be the year when the industry will get the green light. It certainly appears that the government is doing everything in its power to enable this.”
Local opposition, however, seems to be translating into a generally negative public opinion overall. This may cause the government some headaches if support for an unpopular industry ultimately presents its leaders as out of touch and out of check. The trend is consistent with the U.S. experience, where fracking support is in decline as forecasted problems become large realities. A huge methane leak in central California is being linked to nearby fracking activity, and massive lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, offered a tragic warning against messing with water courses.
There is probably a future in which the idea of fracking shale for all of our energy needs seems far more ludicrous than meeting those needs with renewables. We’re not yet there and probably have a few more layers of culture, politics, and big-business interests to cut through. “The status quo always has a momentum behind it–this creates a certain amount of past dependency and it takes a long time to turn the ship around,” said Gemma Bone, an economics researcher at Newcastle University.
Even if it cannot survive the trend, fracking has certainly helped to unlock an era of low-priced oil. With that new reality threatening unsavory regimes in the Middle East, and lessening their ability to blackmail Western governments, perhaps a meeting of human rights concerns, the reality on the ground, and environmental action will prompt a greater urgency in the development of renewable technologies and the electrification of our transport systems. Often it is at the confluence of distinct motivations that an idea becomes most irresistible.
How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Power Up section, which looks at the future of electricity and energy. Click the logo to read more.