Fracking has the potential to be as controversial and as damaging as thalidomide, tobacco and asbestos, a report from the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser warns.
The technology has been developed to help oil companies extract gas trapped in shale rock but, the report fears, it could prove to be another innovation that takes society in the wrong direction.
Drawing a direct comparison with fracking technology chief scientist Mark Walport’s annual report said: “History presents plenty of examples of innovation trajectories that later proved to be problematic — for instance involving asbestos, benzene, thalidomide, dioxins, lead in petrol, tobacco, many pesticides, mercury, chlorine and endocrine-disrupting compounds, as well as CFCs, high-sulphur fuels and fossil fuels in general.
“In all these and many other cases, 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.”
The report, the Annual Report of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser 2014. Innovation: Managing Risk, Not Avoiding It. Evidence and Case Studies, said that while innovations and technological advances are to be welcomed, they need to be fully assessed.
“It is not only important that innovation be efficient and competitive in any particular direction. It is also crucial for economic and wider social wellbeing that the prioritized directions for innovation are as robustly deliberated, accountable and legitimate as possible,” it stated.
“An economy that fails to do this exposes itself to the risk that it will become committed to inferior innovation pathways that other more responsively-steered economies may avoid. In other words, innovation may ‘go forward’ quickly, but in the wrong directions.”
It added: “Whether deliberate or inadvertent, each direction for innovation is a social choice involving issues of uncertainty, legitimacy and accountability as well as competitiveness.
“It is important to acknowledge these complexities of choice, because innovation debates in particular areas often become quite simplistic and polarized.”
Fracking has been enthusiastically championed by the government but has come under intense criticism by environmental campaigners.
A joint Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report published in 2012 concluded that fracking can be “managed effectively” in the UK provided there is strong regulation.
Greenpeace UK’s energy campaigner, Louise Hutchins, described the report as a “naked emperor moment” for the government.
“Ministers are being warned by their own chief scientist that we don’t know anywhere near enough about the potential side effects of shale drilling to trust this industry,” she told The Guardian. “Ministers should listen to this appeal to reason and subject their shale push to a sobering reality check.”