Opinion: Time is of the essence

Drilling for oil in the Arctic seemed to be a certainty in 2012, in 2015 it is far from it. Photo credit: Tatiana Pichugina via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

A year and a half ago, the UK government unveiled the world’s most generous tax breaks for shale gas extraction. Since then, several more shale gas tax breaks have been unveiled, but up to now, in 2015, not a single commercial fracking well has yet been drilled. This is partly due to a volatile market in a low oil price age, but also to mass public protest against the technology. In 2013 pro-fracking fans were convinced that it would only be a matter of time before a full scale fracking revolution would be underway, not only in Britain but across Europe. That has not happened. The only place in Europe where something that could look like a revolution has taken place is in Poland, where, despite the drilling of 68 shale gas wells, companies have not yet succeeded in getting the gas flowing at a commercial level.  This has prompted all but one of the international oil and gas companies to leave the country.

Also a couple of years ago drilling for oil in the Arctic seemed to be a certainty. Then oil companies were queuing up to enter the high north in search of rich hydrocarbons. Again, now a few years down the line, Arctic oil drilling,to say the least, has been minimal. The low oil price has, of course, been a key factor in that; but more importantly large public opposition following Greenpeace’s exposure of Shell’s safety issues has also been instrumental. A Shell drilling rig ran aground off the Alaskan coast, prompting Obama to review their plans. Shell has now declared its intention to return, but their Arctic drilling project has been severely delayed and the running costs have been high. So the big question is how long Shell, with a low international oil price and the need for cost cutting, can justify to their shareholders a venture in the risky and untested Arctic. Particularly as all the other major oil companies who had planned to drill in the Arctic, for now at least, have dropped their plans.

Back in the UK experts are now saying that, while some fracking might take place, it is unlikely to be the revolution everybody had hoped for. BP has even said that it won’t take off for decades. In a recent Parliamentary vote cross-party MP’s had called for a moratorium on fracking. Though that vote failed, Labour opposition party members managed to insert some amendments to an infrastructure bill that would make fracking more difficult. Although there is still a worry that some of those amendments could be watered down, it is hardly likely to create investor confidence in the industry.

In Germany a bill is going through Parliament that with very strict conditions could legalise fracking, but not before 2019, and the bill has not even been approved yet.

Meanwhile renewable energy and cleantech investments keep on expanding year by year.

Some of the reasons for the low oil price have been oversupply, more renewable installed capacity, and the fact we’re using less energy through increased efficiency.

The examples I have described above are not victories in themselves, but it buys us time which is crucial. Of course they are just a few examples,  I have not even begun to talk about the anti-Keystone XL pipeline movement underway in the US, growing day by day.

Every delay we can bring to fossil fuel energy projects, the more time there is for renewables to catch up. And despite the lack of official support they receive worldwide they’re doing a good job of doing just that.

Of course bans would be great in some instances, but I believe the delay in both a fracking revolution in Europe and Arctic drilling will mean the market would take care of that issue. I am not overly worried by fracking in Europe, a few isolated wells might come into production, but such small scale fracking will not have any impact on keeping fossil fuels in the ground, but a large scale revolution would.

I am not saying Greenpeace’s work on Arctic protection has not been important, or the massive public outrage by NGO’s and the public on fracking has been unimportant, in fact quite the contrary as they have played a key role in shaping a market that is starting to say no to unconventional and risky fossil fuels extraction.

Time is of the essence. The more we can delay unconventional and unsustainable energy projects, the closer we come to dealing with climate change, and to the day when renewables will dominate the energy market.

So people should keep doing what they are doing. Keep fighting dirty energy projects. Keep talking up the benefits of a growing renewable energy market. The more you do that, the more we can delay energy projects that we just do not need.

Even though it might not always seem like it, we’re winning the war against the most polluting fossil fuels.

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