Fracking and the new Luddites

Sajid Javid is right to ignore the doubters and greenlight fracking. For one thing, he’s got all the right people working themselves up into a hysterical frenzy.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government overruled Lancashire Council’s rejection of a site, a decision which had been appealed by shale extraction firm Cuadrilla.

Green Party leader Caroline Lucas believes the decision heralds “the start of a whole new fossil fuel industry, undermining efforts to combat climate change”. Meanwhile, Labour have pledged to ban fracking if elected in 2020. Environmentalists are going nuts on social media.

The process of hydraulic fracturing – or ‘fracking’ as it is commonly called – is a method used to extract natural gas from shale rock deposits. Water is injected at high pressure, cracking the rock and allowing the gas to be extracted.

Shale-drilling has delivered a massive boost to the US economy, with the initial drilling boom creating jobs and triggering a vast industrial expansion. American exporters are also supplying gas to the British petrochemicals industry.

Natural gas makes up a third of all electricity used in the UK. Half of this is currently imported and this figure is set to rise to 60% by 2025. It is thought that the Bowland Shale gas field, which lies beneath the surface of Yorkshire and Lancashire, contains more gas than the combined reserves of the two biggest American fields.

Drilling sites usually take up around 1-2 hectares of land, with drilling rigs removed after the first few years of operations. A wind farm capable of generating the same amount of energy would cover anywhere between 5000 and 17,000 hectares.

The word ‘frack’ comes from the supremely excellent sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, and is commonly used interchangeably with… well, you know. It is unclear who first decided to use it to describe shale gas extraction, the drillers or their opponents.

Throughout history progress has been opposed by vested interests. During the Industrial Revolution the Luddites smashed factories because they saw them as a threat to traditional rural lifestyles.

Their ideological influence can be seen in all movements who oppose progress: from those concerned about the rise of the machines, to those in the green movement who believe economic growth is harmful to humanity and the planet.

Accompanying this has been the belief that there is a finite amount of resources and that mankind is doomed if it does not immediately slow down.

Few economists (with the exception perhaps of Karl Marx) have been proven wrong quite so often as Thomas Malthus. He believed that an expanding human population would outgrow its food sources, leading to mass starvation. His modern disciples apply the same logic to fossil fuels.

But human ingenuity has no limits. As we grow more innovative we become more prosperous. We find new solutions that make our finite resources last a whole lot longer.

The prophets of doom predicted ‘peak coal’ in the nineteenth century and peak oil from the early twentieth. They were wrong then and they are wrong today.

Some honesty in the fracking debate would be greatly appreciated. The case against shale gas extraction is based largely on a series of widely-believed myths.

Matt Ridley refuted each of the five most common claims back in 2013, and in the Sun in August he took on the anti-frackers again:

Done properly, fracking does not contaminate ground water, cause surface pollution, undermine buildings or leak gas. 

The cracks it makes in rocks are a mile down and millimetres wide.

The stuff that is pumped down the hole, into rocks rich in oily chemicals anyway, is more than 99 per cent water and sand.

The rest is highly diluted versions of chemicals you keep under your kitchen sink.”

Of course, the driving force behind much of the opposition to fracking is not legitimate safety concerns, but rather a misguided belief that only through eliminating fossil fuels can we tackle climate change.

Leaving aside arguments about the extent of mankind’s contribution to climate change for now, there is a pretty solid argument against self-flagellating energy policy made by Nigel Lawson, Christopher Booker, and others.

Cheap energy and economic growth allow us to better adapt to the challenges of an uncertain future. Rich countries are self-evidently better able to deal with rising temperatures and sea levels, shrug off natural disasters, and avoid famine than poor countries.

Yet the anti-fracking crowd would have us abandon a cheap, abundant source of energy. They would deny the benefits of cheap energy to the developing world. The anti-progressives see no fundamental moral flaw in sacrificing the life and happiness of human beings on the altar of carbon-reduction.

For that reason alone, it’s about fracking time the government stood up to these people.


Chris blogs at Libertarian Right . He believes strongly in individual freedom, personal responsibility, and the power of free markets to eliminate poverty and create wealth. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmanby1989

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty