Risks of fracking compared to thalidomide

The risks from fracking are compared to those from thalidomide, asbestos and tobacco in a study used as evidence for the annual report by the government’s chief scientific advisor.

Andy Stirling, of Sussex University, argued that thalidomide was one of many examples of past innovations which later proved problematic. Today’s fossil-fuel based energy policies, including hydraulic fracturing, could be a good current example.

Dr Stirling, Professor of Science and Technology Policy, said past innovations that ran into trouble included asbestos, benzene, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, chemicals and endocrine disrupting compounds.

“Delayed recognition of adverse effects incurred not only serious environmental or health impacts, but massive expense and reductions in competitiveness for firms and economies persisting in the wrong path”.

“Innovations reinforcing fossil fuel energy strategies — such as hydraulic fracturing — arguably offer a contemporary prospective example”.

Need for more realistic, rational and vibrant innovation democracy

Dr Stirling, an advisor to the EU and UN as well as a member of the boards of Greenpeace International and Greenpeace UK, said: “Innovation is not so much about a race to optimize a single pathway, but a collaborative process for exploring diverse alternatives — as such, we need to nurture a more realistic, rational and vibrant innovation democracy”.

His views are part of Innovation: Managing risk, not avoiding it – Evidence and Case Studies, which included work by a large number of other scientists and academics. The document was commissioned to provide evidence for the first annual report by the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport.

In the introduction to the evidence document, Sir Mark makes it clear that the chapters are the authors’ personal views, not those of the Government Office for Science. The annual report makes no reference to the risks of fracking or hydraulic fracturing.

But the evidence document includes other criticism of the risks of fracking and the way they are being addressed in the UK.

Fracking promoted with no decency of treatment or fair distribution of gain and loss

Tim O’Riordan, of University of East Anglia, suggests that fracking and some other innovations are promoted “without either involvement, decency of treatment, fairness of distribution of gain and losses, or a truly listening political class”.

He identifies six characteristics of the debate about fracking, which also apply to BSE, genetic modification and the disposal of radioactive waste:

  • Development led by science
  • Connection to a profitmaking commercial sector
  • Imbalance between those who gain and those exposed to perceived risk
  • Apparent wide general benefit of the technology but localised exposure to risk
  • Immediate gain for some and prolonged uncertain disadvantages for others, including future generations
  • Deep resentment felt by opponents who feel their values are being excluded from the final decision

Debate become so polarized that discussion of risks impossible

Harry Huyton, of the RSPB, spelt out what his organisation believed were the environmental risks of fracking. These included water demand in areas of water stress, water contamination from well-casing failures and surface spillages, pollution from waste-handling and disposal problems and the loss, fragmentation and disturbance of wildlife habitats.

He said the public and political debate about fracking in the United Kingdom has become so polarized that a discussion about risks and responses has been impossible.

He particularly criticised the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the 14th licensing round as no more than a bureaucratic exercise with little bearing on the policy. He said the SEA did not consider a lower-risk alternative because it went against the government’s over-arching aim of exploring, appraising and developing oil and gas resources.

If risks are branded as myths, opportunity for progress by mutual consent is quickly lost

“If risks are downplayed, branded as myths or simply ignored”, he said, “the opportunity for evidence-based debate and progress by mutual consent is quickly lost”.

Simon Pollard and Sophie Rocks, of Cranfield University, argued that there was a growing recognition that decisions about hydraulic fracturing would produce winners and losers.

Robert Mair, of Cambridge University, argued that fracking could be done safely in the United Kingdom, but he added: “not without effective regulation, careful management, robust environmental risk assessments and rigorous monitoring”.

Local communities must feel their concerns are fully addressed

He said: “It is also essential to build public confidence: local communities need to be involved and well informed, and to feel that their concerns are being fully addressed.”

Steve Elliot, of the Chemical Industries Association, said fracking was key to the chemical and pharmaceutical industries achieving the target of increasing their contribution to the UK economy by 50% by 2030.

He said it was vital that UK communities were confident that shale gas could be developed in an environmentally-safe way, adding “It is now time for government and industry to redouble their efforts to address environmental concerns and explain the economic benefits”.

Innovation: Managing risk, not avoiding it – Evidence and Case Studies

Innovation: Managing risk, not avoiding it – Annual report

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