Unions backing fracking... or are they?

GMB stands alone in support for fracking

The GMB's criticism of the Labour Party’s 2016 conference decision to ban shale gas fracking has been widely quoted in the press, with an assumption that this is representative of the wider trade union position.

The GMB’s Scotland secretary, Gary Smith, said it was “not ethical” and an “abdication of our environmental and moral responsibilities” to become increasingly reliant on gas from dictatorial regimes overseas (although most of our gas imports come from Norway).

Yet the GMB is the only major UK trade union to actively support fracking in the UK, which is opposed by Unite, Unison, PCS, Prospect, the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), among others, as part of their wider commitments to tackle climate change, move away from fossil fuels, and protect the environment (see details below)

Unions have not only taken on board the climate change impacts of shale gas industry, but recognise the serious issues for worker safety and doubts over the industry’s claims of a jobs bonanza.

Climate implications

Recent research shows that currently producing oil and gas fields (without coal) would take us beyond 1.5C, the point where there is a real danger of serious “tipping points” in the world’s climate. This means that to have any chance of keeping within the limits agreed at the Paris climate summit, there can be no new infrastructure – fracking rigs, pipelines, coal mines. Instead, the transition from fossil fuel dependence must be carefully managed in such a way as to respect workers' rights. 

The Committee on Climate Change has also made it clear that fracking would be difficult to accommodate within the UK's legally binding carbon budgets.

Jobs – unreliable evidence

In the UK there are no independent estimates of the economic and jobs benefits of shale gas fracking. Ministers have claimed that the process could support “74,000 jobs.” Yet its own commissioned research suggests a maximum of 32,000 jobs on the highest feasible growth assumption. The most widely reported job forecasts rely heavily on data provided by the oil and gas industry and fracking companies. Read more

A commonsense view would recognise that investment in shale gas fracking, if it went ahead on any scale, would lead to positive and negative employment and economic impacts. Local jobs at fracked sites would be short term, heavily contested and have negative impacts on farming, local services and tourism. Evidence from the US shows that the spin off from investments in shale gas is having a negative impact on renewable energy jobs and investment. 

Industry jobs figures quoted are peak numbers which tail off rapidly. Cuadrilla claims shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire but this figure is for one year only, and falls to under 200 only three years afterwards. But local communities would face risks to the local environment and their health for many years. And despite the several years of disruption from Cuadrilla’s proposed exploration at Roseacre and Preston New Road, the sites would create just 11 net jobs each. Read more

UKERC finds that energy efficiency creates 2.8 times as many jobs as gas power generation for the same investment, and renewable energy creates 3.2 times as many jobs.

Fracking: worker health and safety issues

A TUC briefing set out the main health and safety hazards in fracking operations. The oil and gas extraction industry has a poor safety record and fracking is no different. In the US, where fracking has developed on a wide scale, fracking workers are more than seven times more likely to die on the job than other types of workers. 

Some of the safety hazards that fracking workers regularly encounter include:

  • Fatigue from working long shifts (according to the Institute for Southern Studies the production workers work an average 20 hour shift).
  • Being struck by moving equipment and high-pressure lines.
  • Working in confined spaces.
  • Risk of explosion through the release of hydrocarbons. 

Read more

Trade union opposition to fracking

Most unions are now actively opposing fracking throughout the UK:

For PCS, ‘Shale gas is an unconventional fossil fuel which PCS believes has no place in our future energy mix, and is working with the global trade unions for Energy Democracy initiative to oppose fracking.’

UCU says a ban will ‘avoid both the inconsistency with our commitments on greenhouse gas emissions, and to allow the uncertainty surrounding environmental risks to be fully resolved.’ 

Unite supported campaigners and local groups in a demonstration to support a ‘frack free Lancashire’ and halt Cuadrilla’s fracking plans.  

“Conditional support” for shale gas exploration was rejected at Prospect’s national conference in May 2016.

The FBU joined a global coalition of national trade union centers, global union federations, and individual unions representing millions of workers in the global North and South oppose fracking. ‘Fracking has led to attacks on land rights, and the large amounts of water used in fracking also threatens to increase water scarcity in areas where water supply and access pose real problems for people, particularly those in poor rural communities.’ Unions against Fracking

The TUC’s 2012 annual Congress argued that the precautionary principle  should be applied when developing new energies, for ‘the health of people and the environment should be put before profit.’ The motion amounted to a moratorium on the fracking method of gas extraction “unless proven harmless for people and the environment.”

Read more about the work of the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group