Promoting extractive industries is seen by politicians as a proper, manly pursuit, even if it makes no sense.
It’s not about jobs. It’s not about securing energy supplies. It’s not even about the money. The government’s enthusiasm for fracking arises from something it shares with politicians the world over: a macho fixation with extractive industries.
Compare the treatment of shale gas to the alternatives. Another source of the same product (methane) is biogas, produced by household waste, sewage and farm manure. The great majority is untapped. Capturing it is easy, uncontroversial and probably a lot more profitable than shale gas. According to the government, its exploitation could generate 35,000 jobs and £3bn a year(1).
But this requires changes to the way waste is handled, and in this respect and others the government has been unhelpful. While it has set up a special office to support the fracking industry, while the Chancellor has announced a tax regime he calls “the most generous for shale in the world”(2), biogas is left unmentioned and unburnt. Who wants to make speeches about sewage, when you can stride manfully around drilling rigs in a hard hat and a yellow jacket?
Or compare fracking to wind power. The government is introducing a special veto for local people to prevent the construction of wind turbines. Downing Street explains it as follows: “The prime minister feels that it is very important that local voters are taken into account when it comes to windfarms and that is why new legislation will be brought forward, so that if people don’t want windfarms in their local areas they will be able to stop them.”(3)
Strangely, he does not feel it is important for their views on drilling rigs to be taken into account. The government’s new planning guidance makes these developments almost impossible to refuse. Planners judging fracking applications are forbidden to consider alternatives to oil and gas(4). There will be “no standard minimum separation distance”, which means that a fracking rig could be erected right next to your house. And they “should give great weight to the benefits of minerals extraction, including to the economy”(5). If local voters don’t like it, they can go to hell.
Wind turbines, unpopular as they sometimes are, are less intrusive than fracking operations, with their constant truck movements, their noise and dust, the gas flares lighting up the night sky, the hard standing required, the possibility, if well casings are fractured by the earth tremors fracking can cause, of contaminating the water supply(6). Wind turbines are built on high ground, far from most houses, but no such constraint applies to the distribution of fracking rigs.
And compare the government’s help for fracking companies with its attempts to conserve the gas over whose supply it claims to fret. Poorly financed, poorly promoted, lacking political commitment, its Green Deal has so far been a shadow of the schemes it has replaced.
The prime minister bullshits fluently in defence of the fracking companies. Last week he maintained that “fracking has real potential to drive energy bills down”(7). Rubbish. The government’s projection for gas prices sees them rising (with wobbles) from 61 pence per therm in 2012 to 72 pence in 2018, where, it predicts, they will stay until 2030(8). Even the major fracking company here, Cuadrilla, admits that the impact of shale gas on energy bills will be “basically insignificant”(9).
Cameron claimed “I would never sanction something that might ruin our landscapes and scenery. Shale gas pads are relatively small – about the size of a cricket pitch … The huge benefits of shale gas outweigh any very minor change to the landscape.”(10) What he omitted is that if shale gas is to provide a significant portion of our energy, thousands of these rigs will need to be built. One estimate suggests that replacing current North Sea gas production with fracking on land would require between 10,000 and 20,000 wells(11). Does he have any idea of what that will look like?
"Look at this simulated image of what large scale fracking might look like in the
British Isles. The image was created by overlaying well pads from the Jonah gas
field in Wyoming onto an image of some English countryside. It gives you a
rough idea of the sort of industrialisation of the countryside that
shale gas development involves." — frack-off.org.uk
All those neoliberal mantras about backing off and letting the market decide have been gleefully abandoned. When they discuss renewable energy, ministers repeatedly warn that they should not pick winners. But they promote shale gas with the enthusiasm of Soviet central planners.
Wherever there are resources to be extracted, you can see this testeria at work. When large areas of sea are declared “no take zones”, closed to commercial fishing, fish populations recover so swiftly that within a few years the spillover into surrounding waters more than compensates for the fishing area lost: the total catch rises, perhaps forever. But the government now refuses to exclude fishing boats from anywhere, except the 0.01% of our territorial waters already declared off-limits(12). Every square metre of seabed must be scrubbed clean, even if it results in lower catches and the slow collapse of the fishing industry.
Extracting resources, like war, is the real deal: what politicians seem to consider a proper, manly pursuit. Conserving energy or using gas from waste or sustaining fish stocks are treated as the concerns of sissies and hippies: even if, in hard economic terms, they make more sense.
So we miss part of the story when we imagine it’s just about the money. It’s true that industrial lobbying often defeats a rational assessment of our options, especially, perhaps, when Lynton Crosby has the prime minister’s ear(13). But cultural and psychological factors can be just as important. Supporting shale gas rather than the alternatives means strutting around with a stiff back and jutting jaw, meeting real men who do real, dirty things, shaking hands and slapping backs, talking about barrels and therms and rigs and wells and pipelines. It’s about these weird, detached, calculating, soft-skinned people becoming, for a while, one of the boys.
Extraction is an ideology, gendered and gendering, pursued independently of economic purpose. As Cameron says, without shale gas “we could lose ground in the tough global race.”(14) It doesn’t matter whether the race is worth running. It doesn’t matter that it’s a race towards mutually assured destruction, through manmade climate change. The point is that it’s tough and a race. And that’s all a politician needs to feel like a man.