How does fracking fit with a Christian approach to environmental stewardship?

Today’s guest post is by Christopher Brough.  Chris is currently working as a consultant within the mining industry focussing on optimising metal recoveries and minimising environmental impact. With the challenges of energy transition he is particularly interested in the sustainable provision of the necessary metals for renewable energy sources such as solar cells and wind turbines. He attends Highfields church in Cardiff and loves gardening, English cricket, family time and cycling to work. In the long run he hopes to change perceptions surrounding the mining industry and the value it brings to society. He currently tweets under @cpmining.

Local & Wider Political context

Back in December the UK government lifted its moratorium on fracking within the UK and gave the go ahead for further exploration within the UK, chiefly within Lancashire. Around the world further fracking reserves have been uncovered, and given the abundance of shale deposits worldwide the likelihood is that further resources will be located. This revolution in extraction has the potential to radically alter the energy industry (by breaking a traditional reliance on coal) and change the political landscape (by breaking the western need of a stable middle-eastern oil supply). In America alone gas extracted from shale now accounts for 25% of America’s gas production putting it into surplus.

The fracking revolution has been swift and has deep reverberations. In the US, which is a little ahead of us, this revolution has swiftly become highly contentious. Indeed it is now somewhat of a cause celebre among artists and actors with the likes of Robert Redford, Yoko Ono, Alec Baldwin, David Letterman and Matt Damon rallying to the cry – see the movie Gaslands. Even here in the UK there is some growing resistance to the practise (for an example see here)

Environmental Concerns (In brief)

Briefly, the concerns are pretty straightforward and cover two parts. Firstly, the current practise of fracking requires the use of hydraulic fracturing fluid which contains proppant (sand etc…), water and chemicals. These chemicals are the primary point of concern as they contain skin irritants, respiratory irritants and carcinogens. Secondly, there are further concerns regarding seismicity, and waste (one estimate has it that 29% of the gas extracted from North Dakota is simply flared off, causing a fairly obscene sight visible from space, let alone adding to emission concerns). These concerns can be mitigated against and detailed general and specific reviews into how might happen have already been covered in several places (for example see here and here). The purpose of this blogpost isn’t to explore why fracking can be safe (it can) but to explore why we should bother in the first place.

Why Bother – Stewardship, Economics & Energy Transition

The Bible makes it plain that we are the stewards of the Earth, and as such, our obligation is not negotiable. The parable of the good steward in Luke 12:41-48 and the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 summarize the concept. Similarly Genesis 1:26 contains the original creation ordinance to be stewards to the earth.

“Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” Luke 12:48b

“Each of you has received a special gift, so like good stewards responsible for all the different gifts of God, put yourselves at the service of others” I Pet. 4:10-11.

Then God said, “Let us make manin our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Gen 1:26

Stewardship need not require preserving the natural world in frozen inertia at arm’s length from human activity and indeed must include a wider concept of provision for human ecology and welfare. The wider worldwide context of this care for human ecology is the need to provide sustained cheap energy, (and in some cases clean water through dam projects) to the impoverished. Indeed, western environmentalism can sometimes look particularly galling in the third world where it is seen as being as damaging to the alleviation of poverty (particularly fuel poverty) as the former western imperialism. Nevertheless there are legitimate concerns to our present reliance on non-renewable carbon-based fuels. Given the present rate of fuel consumption the first concern centres around concepts of ‘peak oil’ – the likelihood that we are depleting our fuel resources at a rate that is unsustainable before alternatives can be developed. However, this simply does not square with the current evidence. Essentially the reserves in the UK and wider are staggering and worldwide, with respect to oil alone, the supply capacity is growing at such a rate as may outpace consumption.

The more pressing concern lies around climate change, that continuing our dash for cheap hydrocarbon-based fuel perpetuates a damaging pumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, with the well known links to rising sea levels, rising global temperatures and environmental degradation. Whilst it would be great to roll out 100% renewable energy from today it has to be realised that there will be a necessary slow transition phase. The UK is projected to meet the EU target of 15% renewable energy by 2020 (starting from 1.5% in 2005) but this in itself requires significant investment, the development of suitable supply chains/ infrastructure and the overcoming of technical challenges (which requires time-consuming research). Whilst it can be hoped that government policy and investment may raise that figure slightly, and continuously after 2020, there is still a need to supply the majority of our energy by non-renewable forms for the near future. On the wider world stage alleviating fuel poverty whilst transitioning to renewable energy is going to require the same short-term dependency on non-renewable energy. This being the case we must choose our demon wisely and fracking represents a non-renewable source of energy which nevertheless is far cleaner than coal (releasing about half as much CO2) – briefly it is the only short-term alternative to coal whilst we develop renewable energy technologies.

Therefore, assuming the climate scientists are right (and I see no reason not to), this means that Christians will have to live and work within the context of inevitable climate change and whatever effects (whether overestimated or underestimated) that occur. Within the developed world we can begin to adjust our lifestyles to be more energy efficient and there are numerous resources which address this, but perhaps the most pressing need will be supporting communities in low-lying portions of the developing world (e.g. Maldives, Tuvalu) who will be the first to face the effects of poor stewardship and rising sea-levels – namely salinisation of groundwater, loss of viable farmland and loss of land.

Categories: Environment, Government, Morals & ethics

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11 replies

  1. John Gummer (now Lord Deben) who used to be Secretary of State for the Environment in John Major’s government and is now Chairman of the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change came to my church last week to give a talk on the environment and the issue government currently face. He started by explaining how his Christian upbringing gave him a love and respect for God’s creation and a desire to see it cared for. This is why he devoted his political career to it.

    As part of his talk he discussed fracking and in particular how it may be implemented in the UK. He explained that it is not quite the miracle answer to our energy needs that the media sometimes portray. It is not dangerous, but it is also not cheap and is not easy to do in a completely environmentally friendly way. In the US the gas produced by fracking is currently being sold at a loss and prices are likely to rise rapidly in the coming years.

    What fracking does do is give us energy security, as reliance on supplies from other countries such as Russia is reduced. Fracking in the UK will be far harder than in the US and as our country is more densely populated, the effect on the rural environment will be more obvious due to the visually intrusive equipment. The South Downs is one place where Shale gas may be plentiful according to the British Geological Survey, but do we want drilling to take place in a national park and would planning permission even be granted?

    Despite the difficulties and problems that would be encountered, John Gummer still was in favour of introducing it to the UK for many of the reasons that Chris has given above. Ideally we want to be working towards significant reductions in carbon emissions, but we need to acknowledge that this will take time as new technologies need to be developed and rolled out. In the meantime we need to be working with what we have available and fracking should be accepted into that portfolio of energy production.

    • Thanks for including John Gummers comments, all the issues he raises sound excellent as well as the likelihood that we need to implement it anyway.

    • Two issues spring to mind following your post: the importance of lead-in time for new technologies, which few outside industry seem to appreciate; and the role individuals can play by reducing their own carbon footprint and the value of their cumulative impact. It is also easy to become side-tracked and begin to examine the minutiae of individual technologies without considering both global and national impacts, and the urgency in obtaining a solution – even if global carbon emissions were immediately frozen at present levels, global warming would continue to increase before beginning to reduce.

      A 2007 Editorial in Environmental Law and Management, (ELM), noted:

      “There seem to be few generating options that do not attract some form of protest on “environmental grounds”, and without radical changes to the planning process, the inevitable delays will continue and low carbon generating capacity will not become available soon enough. There is a pressing need to replace a substantial proportion of UK conventional and nuclear generating capacity by 2015-2020 in view of the expected life of existing equipment.”

      A good analysis of current options was given by Lord Smith in an RSA lecture, which we secured for ELM at:

      Also noteworthy is the “parable” at the end of the 2010 Environment Agency Lecture given by the Rt. Rev. James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, .

      • Thanks David, those links are interesting – I would question whether we can really expect growth with conservation. At least I think the price of conservation has to be reduced growth, at least on the ‘upper deck’. I am not an economist and despite much effort only vaguely understand our current economic travails. Maybe growth is essential, but sometimes I wish we could aim to offset our growth targets and spend more.

  2. Interesting blog! People in many developing countries are already feeling the effects of climate change – it’s not just low-lying islands and coasts, but inland and sometimes mountainous places like Malawi, Burkina Faso and even Nepal as well.

    Tearfund keeps hearing stories from local churches on the ground about how there are more droughts, more floods, and less reliable rain than there used to be. We can help people find new ways to put food on the table, for example by switching crops, or building local flood defences, but it’s making life harder right now in many places.

    Just this morning I read this message from a Malawian farmer named Folomina Fombe, who says ‘The climate has changed drastically. In the 70s my parents would plant their maize crop on October 15. And surely, on the same day or the next day, the rain would fall. Some people used to have three granaries of maize because there was so much harvest in those old days. These days some of our children do not even know what a maize granary looks like. Farming is extremely difficult these days because of climate change.’

    So I really agree with Christopher Brough that we need to reduce our emissions rapidly to slow down the pace of climate change – and I agree we need to support communities in the developing world. I’d like to add that rich countries have promised to provide extra money on top of aid to help poor countries adapt and find low-carbon ways to develop. We should keep that promise.

    • Hi Ben, thanks for highlighting the other effects of climate change. I was a little reluctant to place to much emphasis on that in the blog as sometimes we can pin too much on climate change which may simply be down to inherent climate variability, especially as warming since 1998 has not been as drastic as feared. However, what is empirically easy to observe is the changing sea level, and regardless of warming trends the current sea levels are rising – albeit slowly – and therefore categorically the first communities to definitively be effected by climate change will be coastal and low-lying communities.

  3. Thanks for the explanations of Fracking. I never knew what it is, I heard the news and others tried to explain, but I didn’t get it fully.

    As you observe in your conclusion, we as Christians are not here necessarily to oppose or resist the decisions of our governments, but we are here to bring in God’s kingdom to earth. And as we see in the book of Revelation, it’s all going downhill toward the end of the age, until the earth will no longer be a pleasant place to inhabit. God wants to bring in His kingdom, and this is the only thing that we as heavenly citizens should be for and agree with.

    I hear stories of how bad the climate and weather and pollution it was in the UK in the 50’s and 60’s, and now living in London in the 21st century I don’t see too much smog, etc… but the refined pollution is here. The fracking will just add to this general pollution, and it will also add to the risks men expose themselves to.

    But we are here for God, for His kingdom, and for Christ’s second return to bring in the kingdom of God on earth. In Daniel 2 we see that Christ will come as a stone cut without human hands and He will smash and crush the human government + bring in the kingdom of God!

    Lord, Your kingdom come in England!

    • Thanks Stefan. I have always found Revelation inimical to easy interpretation. I attended one lecture series which concluded that the different images presented within Revelation (after the revelation to the churches), represented different ways of looking at the ‘last days’ (i.e. the period in time between Christ’s ascension and His return), rather than a general picture of inevitable societal decline with time. However, it is interpreted I think we would want to avoid a conclusion that overly encouraged pessimism, fatalism and cynicism in the present age.

  4. On the subject of energy in the future, here is a speech by the Bishop of Hereford that he gave in the House of Lords last week on the future of nuclear energy:

    The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I welcome the debate and congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, on securing it. In the three minutes allotted to me, I shall make four overrushed points. First, I am hugely supportive of us walking the nuclear path. I would love the 85% target for 2050 to be achieved, and I stress that thorium and molten salt reactors should be on the medium and long-term radar. There is four times as much thorium in the world as radium. One tonne of thorium is equivalent to about 200 or more tonnes of uranium, which is equivalent to 3.2 million tonnes of coal, which would produce 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide and 900,000 cubic feet of waste fly ash. That is a no brainer when we are starting to be green and looking to be green. There is no argument about that, apart from one of cost, but it could be turned on its head and we could say, “Can we not afford this? Is there a way to achieve those reductions without it?”. I do not think that there is.

    Secondly, research and development are vital. I appreciate very much the steer towards putting a bit more money in. What a shame that since 1995 we have had almost no money in R&D for fission. I understand that at the moment in our universities there are only five PhD students doing R&D in fission and, if noble Lords would like to guess the number of post-docs, it is 0.2 of a researcher. That is desperate, and we are heading for a massive skill shortage unless we do something about this now and step up hugely the amount of money spent on research. It is greatly needed.

    Thirdly, the national decommissioning authority must surely be given a remit that is new, fit for purpose and joined up with the rest of the documentation we have here. Instead of the national decommissioning authority working on its own brief to its own agenda and therefore not being able to use its money to help with the research, we need to make sure that we change the mindset so that some of what is regarded as waste can be regarded as fuel. If we have four molten salt reactors, that would be possible. We need to recognise that the new generations of reactors have far less wastage and therefore there is ultimately far less to decommission, which is another good reason for walking this path, and we need to cut down the £2.3 billion a year that is being spent, which I understand is 80% of DECC’s annual budget. That seems an outrageously large sum, and we need to close the gap.

    My fourth point is that this cannot and will not happen without government putting in the initiative, as the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, has made clear. Anything that has a 15 or 20-year, let alone a 60 or 70-year, lead time is hardly going to be commercially attractive. It needs government to do it. We are having such trouble finding anybody to build our reactors at the moment because we have trusted to private enterprise, and things of this scale have to be joined up and have government support. I would like us also to have something that is far more clear, coherent and comprehensive with a commitment from the Government to go for that, and then others would come aboard with university and other research money to follow.

  5. This is a very sketchy appraisal of fracking. The claims about co2 emissions for example do not take into account the amount of heavy vehicles required to transport fresh water but more Importantly the amount need to remove the toxic waste resulting from the returning sludge once any given well has been fracked. Then there is the sludge itself which contains Radon (natural radioactive material) from the shale which has been fracked. It also contains all the chemicals which have been mixed with the millions of gallons of water which enable the shale to fracture. In America these chemicals are kept like secret recipes so the ingredients cannot be revealed. Known chemicals which are used are for example Benzine and Hydrochloric Acid (How nice). There are also the flares from burt off gas to relieve pressure on the wells. These release Co2 into the atmosphere and are as loud as a jet engine, about 115 decibels. In Pennsylvania residents have encountered undrinkable water, increased cancer rates, breathing problems, houses which cannot be insured and a 50% loss in the value of their homes. The mania around fracking which has been generated by the desire for ‘secure’ energy is a headlong rush into disaster. From a political perspective Lord Browne the great evangelist for fracking also happens to be chairman of Quadrilla the primary licence holders for fracking in the United Kingdom and Great Britain. Do your research, pray for wisdom and act according to you conscience. Don’t get lost in an endless theological debate.

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