Britain the latest frontline in the fracking war

I wanted the gas and I sought it; I drilled and fracked like a slave. Was it YESAB or CPAWS I fought it; I hurled my wilderness tourism industry into a grave.

I wanted the gas and I sought it; I drilled and fracked like a slave. Was it YESAB or CPAWS I fought it; I hurled my wilderness tourism industry into a grave.

It’s more than a hundred years since Robert Service lived in Whitehorse and wrote “Spell of the Yukon.” I wonder what he would think of the battle for our soul between pro- and anti-frackers.

He wrote some of his most classic lines about the beauty of the Yukon wilderness. Yet he also was a banker and knew the Whitehorse business community well, once writing a snappy poem for a business dinner about a future Whitehorse complete with factories, smelters and skyscrapers.

His original home country is the latest battleground in the fracking wars. The British government, a coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has announced ambitious plans to open up that country to fracking. If you think the subject is controversial here, try debating fracking in a country half the size of the Yukon with more than 66 million people crammed into it.

About half of the United Kingdom will be open for applications, including a broad swath of Service’s native Scotland, big chunks of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire plus some of Kent’s green and pleasant land southeast of London. The plan even includes drilling in national parks and what the government calls “AONBs” (areas of outstanding natural beauty). Critics are not reassured that this will only occur under “exceptional circumstances,” whatever that means.

The pro and con arguments in Britain are intense, and put our debate here in perspective.

Fracking advocates point out that the British economy took a beating during the financial crisis. The country has an over-sized banking sector, and several huge banks had to be rescued at a cost of well over £75 billion (C$ 135 billion). The crisis impact on economic activity and employment was particularly severe in Britain. Unemployment was eight per cent in 2012, and is still almost seven per cent. The northern regions where fracking would occur particularly need jobs.

Recovery is also frustratingly slow. Canada’s main export market, the United States, is recovering relatively robustly. Not so for Britain’s export markets in the Eurozone.

The national debt surged during the crisis, from a relatively low 57 per cent of GDP in 2008 to more than 100 per cent this year, according to OECD figures. That’s higher than the 90 per cent level some leading economists believe is a rough threshold, above which a nation’s debt begins to weigh more heavily on long-term economic growth.

In comparison, Canada’s federal debt remains low by historical standards and we expect the annual deficit to soon turn into surplus. Places like Alberta and the Yukon have minimal provincial debt.

Britain pioneered the welfare state but, with an aging population and big debt, its sustainability is in question. The government needs money badly.

Meanwhile, the North Sea gas fields are declining. The billions they have produced each year since the 1970s need to be replaced from somewhere.

Furthermore, about 15 per cent of Britain’s electricity is generated by an aging fleet of nuclear power stations. Plans to build new ones are predictably controversial. Gas-fired power stations fuelled by fracking are leading candidates for new electricity generation.

Finally, Russia’s campaign in Ukraine has sharply reminded Europe of the geopolitical risks of being dependent on Russian gas. Russia supplies around 30 per cent of Europe’s gas needs. Many have criticized the Europeans for their limp defence of Ukraine against Russian-backed incursions. But most of the critics don’t have to worry what would happen if Russia turned off the gas to Europe’s factories, electricity plants and heating systems.

Opponents of a big onshore gas industry have plenty of arguments too. The Yukon’s Kotaneelee region, an early candidate for fracking if the practice is allowed, has no towns, farms or even a road from the rest of the Yukon. In Britain, it’s hard to find a place that doesn’t have someone living on it. There is less Crown land in Britain than there is in the Yukon.

In addition to concerns that fracking opponents have everywhere about groundwater, fracking chemicals, wastewater spills and climate gas emissions, British critics have raised a host of other issues. Britain is filled with national parks and historic sites. Authors like Wordsworth and Jane Austen have gone on for centuries about British landscapes, although they didn’t call them AONBs, of course. Elizabeth Bennet’s visit to Mr. Darcy’s estate wouldn’t quite be the same with a drill rig in the background (and he was already rich enough, anyway).

Furthermore, the country is also packed full of ancient stone buildings. What if there is a spate of small earthquakes, as there has been in frack-happy Oklahoma, near one of Britain’s thousand-year-old cathedrals that is also a world heritage site?

Fracking opponents are apoplectic about drilling in national parks. To use another phrase popular in the British press, they were also gobsmacked to hear the energy minister say last week that he wanted to speed up the process so proponents could start drilling within six months of applying.

It will be fascinating to watch the issue play out in Britain. There will be lawsuits and protests. Applications still have to be made and make it through the complex approval process. It remains to be seen how solid support in Parliament will remain. Liberal-Democrat and Conservative backbenchers from rural areas affected by fracking will be extremely nervous.

Despite the energy minister’s brave talk of proponents drilling within six months of application, the battle for fracking in Britain has probably just begun.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s “Yukonomist” show or Twitter @hallidaykeith

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