Global attempts to ban fracking must consider importance of ‘just transition’

Katie Kouchakji

At the beginning of November, the British Government announced that fracking was not to proceed in England, following new scientific analysis. The decision comes amid mounting calls for the practice to be banned around the world.

Fracking – or hydraulic fracturing, the process of drilling into the earth and then injecting a high-pressure water mixture to release the gas from inside the rock – has long been a target for environmentalists, but with fossil fuels progressively in the spotlight the practice is under increasing fire. Attempts to ban the practice must consider the human impact, however.

The government made its decision amid concerns about seismic activity resulting from fracking, though critics note that the announcement – stating that fracking is on pause ‘unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely’ – leaves the door open for it to resume.

Much of the expertise people in the fossil fuel industry have could be put to use in the renewable energy or energy efficiency sectors. Evolve or go out of business – that’s just how things work

Don Smith
Editor, IBA Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law

It’s a different story in the United States, where the shale gas boom has transformed the economy and communities. Fracking is credited with altering the US energy complex and for a drop in the country’s power sector emissions. Indeed, the International Energy Agency noted in September that the US has become the world’s largest oil and gas producer and is on track to become a net energy exporter in 2020. The 2019 US Energy and Employment Report found that oil and gas production added the most new energy jobs in 2018, while Deloitte noted in 2018 that wages to highly and mid-skilled professionals in the sector grew faster than the average, particularly during the 2008-10 financial crisis.

The economic activity associated with the sector makes the phasing out of shale gas and an end to fracking that much harder, due to the potential impact on local economies and communities. Bill Schleizer, CEO of the not-for-profit Delta Institute in Chicago, notes that the impact is not just on primary jobs, but also on logistics, distribution and support jobs, and that more of the community in areas with fracking will be employed in some way by the sector, directly or indirectly.

The notion of a just transition is one which acknowledges that climate action and the low-carbon transition will have an impact on workers and that the shift needs to be fair to all and done in an equitable manner. Schleizer says this means ensuring that both existing employees and new entrants to the workforce need to have equal access to jobs in new industries in areas which are transitioning away from fossil fuel extraction.

Something to consider, Schleizer says, is whether there are ‘things around the skillsets of the workforce that will still be necessary and relevant and important when we’re doing that transition into a fossil-free energy sector’. There is also a need to look for ‘parallel jobs’ that are closer to existing jobs, rather than outright retraining. He adds that fuels such as hydrogen and biodigesters could have a more direct transition from the natural gas sector, including of infrastructure such as transport and distribution networks.

‘A lot of the expertise people in the fossil fuel industry have could be put to use in the renewable energy or energy efficiency sectors,’ says Don Smith, Editor of the IBA Journal of Energy and Natural Resources Law and an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. ‘Evolve or go out business – that’s just how things work.’

This is at the heart of a just transition – the need to ensure that people feel supported and offer retraining as needed while they are still employed, says Sam Huggard, outgoing Secretary at the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions. Last year, the Pacific nation’s government announced a ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration permits, which significantly affects the Taranaki region. Huggard praises the government’s move to establish a just transition unit within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment while simultaneously reforming the vocational education sector to ensure closer ties to local communities.

‘If we can bring people on board, knowing there’s a place for them, the government has the social licence to make the changes,’ says Huggard. For workers, that means more than just telling them there is a job for them – they need a map to it and policies to support the transition, he says.

Huggard cites examples on the east coast of the US, where states are working with unions to ensure that there are jobs in the growing offshore wind industry and that these are comparable to legacy roles in the fossil fuel sector. ‘It’s important to ensure that the new jobs are good jobs and not just any old job,’ he says.

In Colorado, the state has already been through one transition: coal mining is now nearly a defunct industry in the state. The oil and gas sector employs more people in Colorado than coal did. ‘When the coal mining dried up in north-west Colorado, there was an impact on the community, to be sure, but there weren’t that many coal mining jobs to begin with,’ Smith says. ‘Colorado is an energy state… but there’s a transition underway here.’

Efforts to ban fracking in the state – via ballot referenda – have failed, although some counties have taken the initiative. Falling social acceptance of fossil fuels will aid the transition, Smith says. He adds that this is happening along political lines, reflecting the demographics of the states.

‘These things become politicised and people don’t think about them honestly,’ Smith says, adding that there is no business sense in pursuing fossil fuel projects now.

‘Right now, the market and investment around [fracking] in the US has it going for several decades, at least,’ says Schleizer. ‘We do want to see it as a bridge technology into a carbon neutral economy – with the amount of investment that’s happening right now, we’re hoping it doesn’t become a replacement sector.’