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.