It’s mouth-watering. There may well be more natural gas stuck in our shale rock than we ever thought possible – a whole decade’s worth. This is excellent news, in a way, because in addition to the money (and don’t belittle the money), this gives the UK an energy resource that can ensure it against sudden spikes in import energy prices – like whenever we start a war.
There is just one small problem. Hydrochloric acid. Well, there are actually quite a few chemicals involved, but this one eats through bones. Essentially, fracking involves drilling into shale rock deep underground, injecting high-pressure solution into the rock in order to create fractures and unleash all that bounteous natural gas. In this solution is included a mixture of toxic chemicals and carcinogens.
In itself, no one objects to shale rocks being subjected to such an assault. The problem is that they don’t simply stay where they are, but begin to pollute the nearby environment. Some might reassuringly argue that the chemicals comprise only a small amount of the liquid. As the bland press releases and blurbs insist, over 99% of the fluid is water and sand. But the problem is, even if this statistic is correct – there would be no way of knowing, since it isn’t regulated – you have to use a lot of it per frack, and you need to frack a few times in order to fully exploit the gas reserves. A single frack can require anything from 180-580 cubic metres of the toxic chemical mix. And most of the chemicals are not subsequently removed but rather tend to disappear into nearby groundwater, along with some of the gases. Methane, for example, has been found in dramatically elevated concentrations in nearby drinking water.
This has led to some shocking phenomena, as George Monbiot has pointed out: The documentary Gasland shows people turning their taps on and setting light to the water. In some cases, gas bubbling up from underground fractures has caused explosions in the basements of people’s homes. There are many health and environmental implications of fracking, but flammable tap water appears to be an indubitably serious drawback.
This is not a new kind of problem. Every time a new natural resource is located, there are a series of potential social and environmental costs which can call into question the benefit of actually exploiting the resource. The “resource curse” hypothesis describes how the combined effects can potentially be more harmful, even in simple economic terms, than good.
The standard response to such dilemmas is to call for regulation and restrictions on production, which can be useful. However, it may just be that at a given moment the costs are too high to proceed with exploiting the resource. This perhaps raises another type of question: how should we value resources?
There are presently two simple, yet obviously unsatisfactory, ways of doing so. The first is pricing, which simply tells you how much you can sell a good for relative to the costs of production, and therefore whether you can turn a profit. The second is GDP, which is stimulated by all sorts of misfortunes from burglaries to natural disasters due to the economic activity entailed. Neither form of information is adequate.
We seem to require wholly different indices or signals capable of comprising far more complex information germane to human wellbeing. Above all, we need this information to be publicly available so that democratic decisions can be made: “trade secret” just isn’t good enough. And that, of course, implies breaking with the metaphysical notion that “the market” always knows best.
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