There have been recent protests against the proliferation of shale gas extraction (or fracking) in Scotland. Environmentalists and politicians have railed against what seems to be a move away from green energy and green policies, seeing it as a step backwards for Scotland. I, however, think these are fringe concerns when dealing with what is a huge natural resource to an economy under pressure. Functioning society requires a trade-off and Scotland must compromise on what it feels right to serve the practical interests of its citizens.
Up until this point electricity and its generation are a problem that Scotland’s citizens have kept at arm’s length; if you ask anyone you know about gas prices all they’d probably be able to tell you is that they’re getting higher. In fact the reality is worse than simply higher prices; in 2011 it was estimated 35% of households in Scotland were living in fuel poverty and it has been noted to have a detrimental effect on winter mortality.
If we are to effectively take control of fuel poverty in this country we must reduce fuel prices to ease the burden on households. It would be an absolute fallacy to say that a domestic fracking industry would not reduce this, making this no longer a one-dimensional choice. If we support the fracking industry in Scotland it will have consequences environmental, social and political. But denying its development would mean consigning its citizens to further inability to live comfortably or live at all. By protesting this capitalisation we ignore the interests of the people who would benefit from fracking in Scotland.
Scotland’s government has promised to have electricity generated from 100% renewable sources by 2020. Given that we’re currently at 29.8% this seems a pretty unlikely achievement, and given that oil exports are as big a part of our economy as any of the food and drink we produce (both around £4bn in 2011), it’s pretty ridiculous to think we can just wash our hands of hydrocarbons as if we will suddenly be a fossil-free country. Why pretend these resources don’t exist? Why undergo the same hypocrisy of oil producing nations such as Norway when we’re not nearly as rich? Can we really sacrifice what could be a boon to our economy under an nebulous and ineffective whitewashing of what makes money in Scotland? In a nation struggling to fund and protect its services it is preposterous to deny ourselves the opportunity to exploit and tax such a valuable resource.
If we don’t go ahead with fracking, where does the UK’s gas come from? The North Sea Oil platforms supplied around 57% of the UK’s Natural Gas in 2012. In 2011 Qatar supplied around 27% of the UK’s imported natural gas. If Qatar sounds familiar, it may be because their World Cup preparation has lead to slave labour, extraordinary fatalities in its labour force (around one per day for Nepalese workers), conducting tests to "detect and ban" homosexuals from the World Cup and accusations of bribery around its World Cup bid. For a nation which prides itself on fairness and democracy (including a recent referendum) we are surprisingly unconcerned that fuelling our nation makes us complicit in a regime that has human rights policies from the dark ages.
Finally, the issue of fracking’s environmental impact. There are definitely environmental concerns with fracking, it’s true. But we must consider what we are currently using as an alternative. The UK’s chief single method of energy production is coal-fired power plants. Coal is far and away dirtier than natural gas, producing more CO2, more dangerous chemicals and smog than a natural gas plant, as well as more radiation than a nuclear plant. Using cheaper natural gas in higher quantities would significantly bring down the environmental cost of energy production in the UK.
So when you see the latest set of protests against shale gas or the next politician arguing its evils, take a minute to consider. Sure, you’ll worry about what’s happening to Scotland’s environment and you’ll care about what effect vested interests and cruel economics will do to our nation. But ask yourself this: do you care about it more than a stable economy? Than affordable electricity for Scotland’s citizens? Is this environmental hand-wringing enough to justify supporting one of the cruellest and most corrupt regimes in the world? If the answer is yes to all these then by all means keep protesting fracking. But otherwise let Scotland use its natural resources to benefit itself and not to sacrifice the interests of its citizens on the altar of misapplied principle.
This article was corrected to reflect a new study claiming that 27% of Scotland's imported gas comes from Qatar. The figure was previously stated to be 40%.