Debate heats up over UK fracking industry

A Tory peer has last Tuesday generated quite a bit of controversy with his remarks on fracking in the United Kingdom. During Lord’s Questions, Lord Howell, former advisor to William Hague and father in law to George Osbourne, has been quoted as saying that fracking should take place in the “uninhabited and desolate areas” of the northeast of England, a suggestion that has many in the northeast and the environmental lobby up in arms. Notwithstanding Lord Howell’s subsequent clarification that he meant to refer to the northwest, the question of fracking has brought libertarian considerations of property rights and individual liberty to both sides of the British energy debate.

First developed in 1947, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, is a natural gas and petroleum extraction technique which involves pumping water, sand, and other chemical additives into used oil and gas wells in order to fracture rock formations and allow trapped gases and oil to flow toward the wells again. Critics of the process allege that contamination of groundwater and seismic disturbances may result from it, thereby damaging public and privately owned properties in affected areas. Fracking supporters, on the other hand, have also grounded their arguments in such libertarian considerations, insisting that none of these negative effects are likely to result from fracking, and consequently, that fracking bans are unnecessarily restrictive of farmers’ and property owners’ right to manage their own land.

Critics have alleged that fracking carries a high risk of groundwater contamination, when natural gas and additives used in the water for the operation leak outside of wells and drill lines. According to US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, the claims of fracking opponents do not have any scientific basis. “I still have not seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater,” Moniz told reporters at the Christian Science Monitor. Fracking operations are always conducted thousands of feet below the water table.

However, industry insiders – who have declined to be named in this article – suggest that this element of the debate has gotten ahead of itself. After the massive government backlash against BP following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, petrochemical companies in Britain have become hypersensitive to potential lawsuits and the legal repercussions of environmental accidents. For this reason, the insider source explains, environmental risks have become investment risks, and self-interested companies do not now tend to propose projects that they think are environmentally risky. If a project has been proposed, it is likely the company is reasonably convinced of its low environmental risk.

While several countries have not taken the above arguments and evidence to heart, and have banned or restricted fracking activities in their territory, the United Kingdom has famously reversed its outright ban on the technique, opting instead for a regulated fracking industry.

“We want to create the right conditions for industry to explore and unlock the potential in a way that allows communities to share in the benefits,” said UK Chancellor George Osborne in a statement. “I want Britain to be a leader of the shale gas revolution – because it has the potential to create thousands of jobs and keep energy bills low for millions of people.”

While Mr. Osbourne’s predictions may or may not prove too optimistic, it is certain that a freer energy market allowing hydraulic fracturing will create jobs, boost the national economy, revitalise former mining communities in the north of England, and – perhaps most importantly – protect the right of individuals to live off their properties as best they can without interference from the state.

Either way, whether the fracking debate is won or lost by the environmentalists or Lord Howell, one thing is clear: with both sides of the debate grounding their arguments in the respect for the property of farmers, companies, or residents of the north of England, issues of liberty and property rights are beginning to dominate the discussion. By fundamentally moving political discourse toward such libertarian considerations, whoever wins, libertarians have achieved great progress indeed.

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