These arguments generate a great deal of heat and media attention, but they are not the real issue – the real issue is the impact of our continued consumption of fossil fuels on climate change, and a much more significant question is whether investment in fracking will be at the expense of investment in renewables?
Fracking has been prominent in the news recently. In early 2015 the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommended that shale fracking should be put on hold in the UK because it is incompatible with our climate change targets and could pose significant localised risks to public health. On 26th January MPs overwhelmingly rejected a bid to suspend fracking for shale gas by 308 votes to 52. The government agreed to Labour proposals for 13 new conditions to be met before extraction can take place, but the offer to consider a ban on drilling in national parks was subsequently reversed.
A few days later Lancashire County Council deferred a decision to grant planning permission to Cuadrilla for drilling exploratory wells. At the same time the Scottish Parliament announced a moratorium on fracking, followed on 4th February by the Welsh Assembly’s vote to block the ‘toxic method’ of shale gas extraction until it is proven safe from environmental and public health standpoints.
The Green Party and Friends of the Earth launched numerous reports questioning the safety of fracking and raising concerns about its impact on the water supplies and environment of the communities within which the drilling is planned to take place. However, public opinion and government decision making has been shaped by the need to ensure energy security for UK industry and homeowners, and if possible reduce the cost of energy for the electorate.
The arguments in opposition to fracking are many and various, some relevant and cautionary, some alarmist and misinformed, and perhaps in the midst of these, it is the objective voice of scientific research that struggles most to be heard. In reality there will be no large earthquakes shattering famous landmarks and causing the ground to disappear beneath our feet, as some suggest. Nor is there likely to be poisoning of the groundwater supplies as long as the boreholes and well-heads comply with UK safety procedures. It is true that local roads may find it difficult to cope with increased heavy vehicle traffic, and there may well be significant demands on local water supplies and issues relating to the disposal of waste water. In addition the local environment may well suffer degradation in the short term and/or pollution.
However, it should be noted that in the UK there are strict regulations applying to all these aspects of any industrial or commercial enterprise.
Those both in industry and in government who support fracking are right to point to our dependence on gas supplies for domestic heating, industries and power supplies. They are also right to warn us about long-term energy security, especially when so much gas is imported from Russia and the Middle East, which are areas of long-standing political instability.
It is also correct to point out that shale gas has lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than that which comes from the North Sea, and far less than coal, which it could potentially replace in the production of electricity through gas-fired power stations. However the leakage of methane (a more damaging GHG) from the well heads could be problematic.
While the potential jobs created in the shale gas industry may offset the loss of employment in the North Sea gas fields, and may even provide an increase, the desired reduction in energy costs is less likely.
No-one who understands the science of the fracking process or the economics of power supply will dispute the central focus of these issues and arguments. What few, even amongst the ‘green lobby’ are getting to grips with is the potential danger of rapid climate change brought about by the continued increase in the burning of fossil fuels – however they are extracted and derived.
We need to beware of becoming embroiled in simplistic arguments when in reality we will remain dependent on fossil fuels for a considerable time. Sources of renewable energy and alternative technologies are unlikely to fill the gap between supply and demand in the short term.
What is a reasonable and balanced Christian response? What are the issues?
We might begin by identifying the significant issues:
• maintaining our energy security
• the ongoing operation of our petro-chemical industry
• increasing or at least maintaining levels of employment
• protection of the local environment
• reducing GHG emissions
• reducing our dependence on fossil fuels
• putting more investment into renewable sources of energy and alternative technologies
These highlight the need to balance the care of creation with the needs of human beings both today and in the future. In this, Christians are mindful that human consumption, providing for our own perceived needs, can be at odds with the command of God to care for creation as a whole.
To preserve plant and animal species and protect the environment both local and global we urgently need to address climate change, brought about by the GHG emissions given off through the burning of fossil fuels. We need to continue research into alternative technologies and work towards the development of low-carbon economies throughout the world. This will in part be achieved through the support of developing economies through such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Green Investment Fund, which had pledges of US$9.3 billion in 2014.
We recognise that this is God’s world (Psalm 24:1) and that our call is to care for creation (Genesis 2:15).
We need God’s wisdom rather than heated and/or politically motivated arguments.
Our hope is in the Gospel, not in economic growth and ever increased consumption. Christ has come to redeem the whole of creation (John 3:16), and the cross is a sign of sacrifice, that challenges a narrative of increasing exploitation of natural resources to serve our own ends.
We are invited to share our lives with Christ seeking God’s love to guide and shape our approach to the environment in general and to fracking in particular.
We live between the Cross and Christ’s second coming, when God will renew the whole of creation, where all relationships will be redeemed and restored (Revelation 21:1-4). The now and the not yet acknowledges that we cannot resolve every issue, but nevertheless we can seek to act in a Christ-like way (Mark 8:34).
John Weaver 12.02.15
John Weaver was born and brought up in Cardiff. After taking degrees in Geology at Swansea, he taught at the University of Derby. John trained for Baptist ministry in Oxford and was then pastor of Highfield Baptist Church from 1981-1991. From 1992-2001 he taught theology at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and from 2001-2012 served as Principal of South Wales Baptist College. He is a former President of the Baptist Union, and is the Chair of JRI. His main areas of research are: relating faith to life and work; theological reflection; adult education; and the dialogue between science and faith.