On Wednesday, while a packed hall at the Wills Memorial Building was in thrall to a powerful talk from George Monbiot, down the road at St Mary Redcliffe another audience was learning about just one of many threats to the climate. Fracking for shale gas.
Much of his evidence was based on the useful, if arguably limited “Shale Gas Extraction in the UK” published in 2012 by the Royal Academy of Engineering. Limited because it looks primarily at the engineering risks of fracking, not the wider issues.
The talk offered plenty of insights that the industry, and its supporters in Downing Street and the DECC, wouldn't want to highlight. It's not going to provide cheaper energy. It's nothing like the US situation, where fracking has boomed because of vast reserves, a market that pays landowners for fracking rights, and a geology that provides much greater depths of rock between clean water and the shale than is the case in the UK. Even so, there's plenty of evidence from the USA that fracking is bringing many local problems, and there (as here) its development may be as much to do with geopolitical dominance as with securing essential energy.
Put in persective, the UK gas resource is miniscule as part of global reserves – by far the biggest are in China, followed by the USA.
It turns out, too, that if it is exploited, only around 3% of the shale gas will be put to use. The rest will stay in situ as the extraction pressure drops, or else over the years seep out to the surface, perhaps via the water supply.
That seepage, and a host of other 'legacy' impacts, would of necessity become the responsibility of a new publicly funded quango, much as the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has the impossible task of dealing with radioactive waste for centuries to come.
For Stockwood Pete, whose default position is to challenge anything that might increase fossil fuel burning and consequent climate change, the talk tended to confirm that position. But it didn't get round to addressing the big claims made for fracking in the UK – that by displacing coal fuel, it will reduce net greenhouse gas emissions, and that it will improve our energy security. OK, in an hour and a half that would have been too much to ask!
Here's a coal train, heading out this week from Temple Meads en route from Portbury Dock to EoN's Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Leicestershire. The coal might have come from Colombia or from Australia, Russia or the USA, but it's just one of hundreds of trains from Britain's ports constantly feeding the huge Midlands power stations – allegedly to keep the lights on. (Sorry, that's a stock political soundbite term, like 'hard working families').
Will fracking actually reduce carbon emissions?
Not in my book. Or at least, only if internationally there's some kind of agreement to cap global fossil fuel emissions. It's inconceivable that without such a deal, rigorously applied, the coal will just find its way into some other market, and finish up just the same spread through the planet's atmosphere.
At the end of the British Science Association's event at St Mary Redcliffe, someone pointed out that the choice of energy sources won't depend on any rational assessment of safety, emissions, or price; it will be a matter of political horse-trading, ideology, and influence. Our votes on May 7 just might help with that.
Much more about the background and the local impacts on the excellent Frack Free Somerset pages