Fracking: Industry made Sussex, and I hope it will again

August 17, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

It turns out that the Bowland Shale in Yorkshire and Lancashire may be even
bigger than the Marcellus, the biggest field in the United States. The
opportunity is even greater than that of North Sea oil in the 1960s and
1970s. Quite possibly, the Weald Basin is also very rich. Hence Cuadrilla’s
drilling.

The point of Mr Fallon’s joke was that the South East is known for its Nimbys.
We stand accused of accepting the fruits of economic growth in our pension
pots and our house values, but wanting the dirty bits to happen somewhere
else. So, it is assumed, we shall all oppose fracking.

There is some truth in the caricature. Few people positively want industrial
processes right under their residential noses. The South East, being quite
crowded by rural standards, is self-protective. But I find that most
people’s minds are not made up. They could quite easily come down in favour
of shale, provided one or two things happen.

When considering these arguments, I always remind myself that I was brought up
(about seven miles from where I live now) in a mining community. The biggest
employer of the fathers at my village school was British Gypsum. It owned
two serious gypsum mines (one of which is still functioning) nearby. They
ran several miles underground, with lorries coming and going and a sort of
pulley system carrying the product out of the mines and across the
countryside. I never remember anyone suggesting that this industry was
destroying our idyll. If anyone had said that the mines should be closed
down because of environmental damage, he or she would have been thought mad.

All sorts of potentially unpleasant industrial activity – including oil wells
in Dorset and the South Downs – go on in rural areas. If rubbish tips and
sewage farms are well soundproofed and not too visible, they are accepted.
Even pylons, which are genuinely, shockingly intrusive, do not attract much
notice. The difference from the past, as in so many areas of life today,
lies in the question of who gets to the microphone first. If you Google
“fracking”, the top entry is posted by Friends of the Earth (FoE). The third
is from a site called dangersoffracking.com. No entry on the first page of
Google is pro-fracking.

When a company comes along to your village and says it wants to drill, who is
available to give you information? In a public culture in which phrases like
“saving the planet” and “the precautionary principle” are literally part of
school curriculums, is it surprising that people are susceptible to
propaganda that deploys such words?

Everyone can see that a drilling company has a bias on the subject. Fewer
people are aware that organisations like FoE and Greenpeace are just as
self-interested, and a lot more politically motivated. The BBC never
subjects them to a grilling. Their principles are now enshrined in
legislation both here and in the EU. They have a government department –
Energy and Climate Change – virtually framed in their image. Ed Davey, the
Liberal Democrat secretary of state, obliged them by ordering a year’s
moratorium on fracking. Green representatives have almost automatic right of
access to key European meetings, and a practised skill at spinning out
regulatory delay. Within the machinery of government, only the Environment
Secretary, Owen Paterson, has pushed vigorously against the lobbyists from
the start.

Now, at last, David Cameron has come out for fracking; but because he said,
when he began three years ago, that he wanted his to be “the greenest
government ever”, he has hobbled himself in questioning the motives of his
opponents on this subject.

The root of the Greens’ objection to fracking is not that they believe it
cannot work, but that they fear that it can. If we can produce a cheap,
low-carbon, plentiful fossil fuel, that’s the end of renewables. Wind power
is, among other things, a way of increasing Western energy dependence on
others, because it is incapable of meeting our needs. If I were President
Putin, wanting to keep my fossil-fuel power over the West, and therefore to
squash indigenous shale production, I would be funding our green lobbies as
hard as I could.

At Balcombe, the protests are being driven by outsiders, Occupy movement
types, not by locals. This mirrors what happens all over the country.
Non-green people who want more jobs, cheaper fuel prices and so on, are
numerous, but not noisy. Who will speak for them? What public agency will go
through all the facts on the subject, showing, for instance, that there is
no recorded example of mobile groundwater ever having been polluted by
fracking anywhere? Above all, who will put the essential political, economic
and, therefore, moral case?

At present, there is a strange disconnect. You often hear concerned persons
complaining about people who live in “fuel poverty” – a phrase that has a
legal definition. Yet these same people do not speak up for forms of energy
production which could abolish that poverty within a few years.

A few days ago, the Diocese of Blackburn, which includes some of the Bowland
Shale, put out a leaflet warning against fracking, which stems, it says,
“from a sincere conviction to take seriously the challenges of caring for
God’s fragile creation”. In the 1980s, Anglican bishops, especially in the
North, attacked the Thatcher government for tearing the heart out of
communities by closing coal mines. Today, when the same communities could be
revived by the profits of much less polluting hydrocarbons, Church spokesmen
condemn the very idea.

To my pleased surprise, however, last night there was an ecclesiastical
volte-face. As we report elsewhere, the Church of England, galvanised I
strongly suspect, by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby,
declared that scares against fracking are like those about MMR. It even made
the right point about fuel poverty. At last, people are beginning to ask the
right questions about who benefits.

This week I had an interesting talk with Chris Wright. He is the American
engineer who, with his colleagues, invented the “slick water” method of
fracking that transformed rather crude technology into something really big
(and much safer). When he came to England recently, he said, he was saddened
by the number of derelict industries he saw in places like Liverpool. In his
view, low-cost natural gas is the key to successful manufacture. Shale gas
gives such places their chance.

He was also bewildered by the environmental hostility to fracking compared
with the indulgence of wind farms. His industry, he told me, produces “on
four hectares as much energy as the entire British wind industry”. Yet there
are more than 3,000 wind farms putting up their three fingers to “God’s
fragile creation”, visible from every high hill in the entire United Kingdom.

Unusually for a businessman, Chris Wright does not believe in lying low. “You
can’t win the debate when one side is quiet,” he says.

He is right. And the best way to persuade typical residents of Sussex villages
is to try to answer, at the same time, the big questions and the small one.
The big ones are: “Is it safe?” and: “Will it make our country more
prosperous?” The small one is: “What will it do for our village?”

We will do our bit for Mr Cameron’s Big Society if we can see its link with
our little locality. It was good to see, in his article in this newspaper on
Monday, that the Prime Minister emphasised the £100,000 that each community
can receive for each exploratory well, and the 1 per cent of revenue
accruing to it if gas is actually extracted.

Much of my county’s prosperity is built on the iron industry, which it
dominated until the industrial revolution. We made the cannons that helped
us win wars. Our attractive architecture and even – because of the
artificial hammer ponds – some of the charming landscape are the result. It
would be a proud thing if we could once more benefit our country and
ourselves at the same time.

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