Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a serious warning of the dire consequences of exceeding 1.5o C of global warming. It urged governments, yet again, to cut carbon emissions faster and warned that the ‘next few years are probably the most important in our history’.

Dr Damien Short, director of the Human Rights Consortium and one of the academics in a team which is examining the environmental and socio-economic impacts of the hydraulic fracturing process in the UK, says for those who read climate science this is not news.

We have known about the need to cut carbon emissions severely for decades, yet global emissions rose after the Paris agreement was signed. According to the International Energy Agency, fossil fuels remain the world’s main source of energy, accounting for around 80 per cent of global primary energy use. As finite conventional reserves are depleted but demand for energy rises, there is increasing pressure to exploit so-called unconventional energy sources.

As Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute explains, ‘the expanded interest in unconventional hydrocarbons is largely a response to the depletion of conventional hydrocarbons, which are cheaper, cleaner, and easier to produce in virtually every instance. Extractive industries have understandably targeted the best resources first; as these disappear, it becomes necessary to go after lower quality resources.’

The relative level of extraction effort for hydrocarbon development is important as it strongly correlates with damage to the environment and society. The more energy input in, the more likely it is that a price will be paid by the environment or society in terms of corporate ‘externalities’. Moreover, the more energy required to extract the resource, the less there is for society to use. For example, the unconventional process colloquially termed ‘fracking’ often requires huge quantities of water, which local populations cannot then use.

In the UK context, early 2014 saw Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron proclaim his government would go ‘all out for shale’. Since then the Tory party has pushed the exploitation of unconventional hydrocarbons almost ceaselessly (the Greens and Labour would ban it – see Guardian story). While batting away the environmental and social issues that have accompanied unconventional resource development in countries like America and Australia, they cite potential benefits ranging from job creation to ‘energy security’ with the catch-cry of flawless ‘gold standard’ UK regulation.

Despite such reassurances, it is already clear from research at the community level in Lancashire that even at the exploration stage in the UK, ‘fracking’ is causing considerable social trauma amid accusations of the national government riding roughshod over local democracy.

Furthermore, when local citizens feel let down by their governments their human rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression (combined to functionally produce our right to protest) become even more important. Yet it seems they are being eroded through disproportionate and inappropriate policing, arbitrary injunctions and ‘manifestly excessive’ sentencing for direct action.

And this is before ‘fracking’ has begun in earnest. What is abundantly clear is that the social and environmental impacts of unconventional development impacts must be researched and community experiences documented so that national and international policy makers can be better informed about the repercussions of such developments.

Despite the government’s pro-unconventional hydrocarbon stance, two key UK research councils, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) announced last year that they would soon be accepting bids totalling £8 million to address five key challenges:

  • The evolving shale gas landscape.
  • Shale resource potential in the UK.
  • Transportation of the shale gas from reservoir to surface.
  • Contamination pathways.
  • Socio-economic impacts.

The announcement was met with scepticism in some communities faced with potential fracking. While their position is very understandable, given the impacts already seen, it has the potential to be a worthwhile initiative.

Independent, rigorous academic research could facilitate a better understanding of the social and economic impacts in particular. As a member of a team of researchers from Northumbria University and the University of Manchester I was part of a successful bid for challenge 5 funding that seeks to investigate the ‘socio-economic’ impacts of unconventional hydrocarbon development.

I am optimistic that we will provide new insights into these impacts and highlight  the ‘lived experience’ of affected local communities, adding academic weight to their voices in the national ‘fracking’ debate.

More information
Dr Damien Short is director of the Human Rights Consortium (HRC) and a Reader in human rights at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. He has spent his entire professional career working in the field of human rights, both as a scholar and human rights advocate. He has researched and published extensively on indigenous peoples’ rights, genocide studies, reconciliation projects and environmental human rights, and is currently investigating the ‘socio-economic’ impacts of unconventional hydrocarbon development

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