We recently hosted a panel discussion titled ‘Beyond the Fracking Polemic: Energy Futures and Vulnerability’. The event took place on the 7th of October at the University of Manchester. It was supported by the ESRC North West Doctoral Training Centre and organised by Craig Thomas, whose own work on the issue of shale gas development is discussed in a recent CURE blog, available here. There were approximately 70 attendees. The event featured an interdisciplinary panel of four speakers, plus Stefan Bouzarovski who chaired the discussion. This was an opportunity for the speakers to each present from their own academic perspective on the implications of fracking on energy vulnerability in the UK and to exchange research findings, expert knowledge and professional opinions across the divides that traditionally separate the social and natural sciences. The panel sought to place the debate within a context of energy vulnerability which is, broadly speaking, concerned with social and environmental (in)justice and understanding how different energy scenarios impact on actors from a household to supranational scale of governance. The implications of fracking for real world issues like risk, energy poverty, social licence and how regulation and mitigation measures might work in practice were looked at afresh from the perspectives of our expert speakers.
The event commenced with Erik Bichard (School of the Built Environment, Salford University). Erik’s book, The Coming of Age of the Green Community includes a chapter on the anti-fracking movement in the US, and he referenced empirical observations from the chapter in his presentation. Erik observed that the anti-fracking movement differs from previous environmental movements in two key ways. First, they are organised into smaller groups that operate in alliance with each other. Second, public debates on ‘fracking’ in the US environmental movement encapsulate global and local environmental issues in a way that other environmental campaigns, for example on climate change, have not achieved. Erik talked about the range of motivations for being involved in the anti-fracking movement which include climate change corporate greed, injustice, civic pride, health, concern about corruption and risk to local environment.
The second speaker was Ernest Rutter (School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, University of Manchester). Ernie highlighted that the shale gas industry in the UK is still at a very early phase of development, with six exploratory wells drilled to date. Ernie focused on the energy security issues that the UK will face in the coming decades and argued that a shale gas industry could replace coal and that this was in the national interest. Ernie also talked about food security, focusing on links between the capacity of the UK to feed itself using domestically grown produce and the availability of chemical fertiliser which is used in conventional agricultural processes. Fertiliser is produced by the chemical industry and large quantities of natural gas are required in its production. Looking ahead, Ernie recognised that a shale gas industry could not proceed without public acceptance and suggested that public education about the processes that underlie the shale gas industry was necessary to ensure informed discussion, with more engagement from academics in this area needed.
The third speaker was John Broderick (Tyndall Centre, University of Manchester). John focused on the policy context in which a shale gas industry could develop in the UK, in particular our domestic commitments to meet the targets of the Climate Change Act and instigate a low carbon transition over the coming decades. In order to avoid a two degree rise in climate change, two thirds of fossil fuels available will need to remain in the ground and so key questions that need to be asked are which fossil fuels will be left untouched, and who will bear the costs of not exploiting available resources. John observed that while gas extracted from shale in the UK could replace coal as a source of energy, this won’t reduce international emissions without supra-national regulations that limit the extraction and use of coal.
The final speaker was Karen Bickerstaff (Geography, Exeter University,). Karen talked about a crisis of democracy around the role of public participation in the roll out of technologies which has been evident with a nascent shale gas industry. Public engagement has focused largely on instrumental involvement that allows only a limited role in the critique of technology pathways. Karen suggested that with innovation in technology on energy there should be a sense of responsibility as to the effects of those technologies on society and the environment. There is also a need to create transparency and open up decision making in the development of technology pathways and both industry and government have been left wanting in this regard on infrastructure development related to the shale gas industry.
Questions from the audience
Questions were enlivened by the range of people that came to the event, which was well attended. The audience was diverse, with local and national government, planners, students, academics, activists and members of the public in attendance. The range of people who were there, on a Tuesday afternoon, is testament both to the importance fracking in the public sphere and the reach of CURE beyond academia. On such a sensitive issue, it is refreshing to see that CURE was able to provide a space in which polemical argument was avoided and voices heard from across fields of expertise on how fracking relates to issues around energy futures and energy vulnerability.
Concluding the event
To sum up the event, Stefan Bouzarovski talked about the common themes that came out of the panel discussion. Each of the panellists tied the local issues of ‘fracking’ and a nascent shale gas industry into larger concerns that touched upon energy security, energy vulnerability and energy futures. Questions around the impacts a shale gas industry and ‘fracking’ could have on our energy futures cannot be answered without first considering whose future we are talking about. Energy underpins the organisation of society and it is important to question the extent to which the direction in which we are moving with regard energy and the low carbon transition remains socially and environmentally just.