• Against the Invisible Hand

    By now we should all know the story inside out. The British government are determined to push through hydraulic fracturing. More and more people stand in their way. Take the recent decision in Ryedale for example; while the council there voted to approve exploratory drilling in the area, they had received 4,375 letters of complaint about the process, with only 36 in support. But democratic considerations have been thin on the ground from the start in the wooing of UK plc by shale gas. In the face of defeat, fracking companies have at times even played the hand of being victimized underdogs.

    It doesn’t take a genius to see that it’s an industry with a massive lobbying drive behind it, or to see that its dismissals of environmental concerns as scaremongering are duplicitous or prone to a criminal degree of neglect. What’s not commonly acknowledged though are the dubious grounds financially the industry rests on. As Howard Johns makes clear in his brilliant book ‘Energy Revolution’, fracked gas wells tend to decline in productivity by often more than 60% annually, a factor only exacerbated by a glut of supply. That means new wells have to be drilled at an increased rate to keep the shareholders happy. It’s a teetering system of postponed debt. One day it seems set to crash but American shale firms are keen to spread wide their maw in the hope of staving off such a day as long as possible.

    It’s doubly ironic then that even Lord Browne, Cuadrilla’s chairman and one time key advisor to the government, stated that widespread production of shale gas in the UK would make little difference to our gas prices, given the way the European market is rigged. Predictions of a shale surge leading to lower prices have also been shot down by David Kennedy, one time Chief Executive of The Committee on Climate Change. Kennedy cited “fundamental economics", stating “there isn't enough shale gas in the UK and in Europe to change the European market price.” Such information can only make it all the more galling when looking at decisions such as that taken in Yorkshire. But Wednesday’s vote in Scotland to ban the process there helps go to show that concerns over the industry are anything but parochial, or in any way ill-informed. Those raising their voices from their concerns include scientists and diplomats as well as those who have never before been particularly politically active but who are now pulling out all available stops given the scale of the threat.

    Many pro-shale PR men may actually believe what they’re paid to attest to, just as many MP’s seem only too keen to subscribe to the narrative; that fracking is safe, that regulation in the UK is tough enough to see off the ‘problems’ incurred in other parts of the world and that even if mistakes or accidents occur the need is greater than the risk and the process should be pushed through whatever the thoughts of the hippies and nimbies and hacks.

    People like to kick off against or quietly deride anything that smacks too heavily of alarmism. But given that so many assurances are being made on the basis of the rigour of a regulatory framework that at best has been cut to the quick (and which may well be inadequate in the face of the scale of proposed drilling), can there be any surprise if people are so desperately concerned? It’s clear that the industry, to be very favourable, carries huge risks. And to any rational mind taking stock of the situation those risks are only too real and disturbing. It’s obvious too that much of the more damning evidence has been suppressed by non-disclosure orders in the U.S. The distressing nature of such knowledge only commends those whose reaction has been so painstaking and measured.

    Have we learned anything at all from America, from the fact that the governor of New York State enforced a moratorium on the process, citing “serious health risks”, or the concerns raised by the British Medical Association as well as Breast Cancer UK? Do we really need to rehearse the incidents of poisoning or the contamination of wells and hidden waterways that may never be cleaned, as if the absence of these things would excuse the light and noise pollution, the visual impact of thousands of rigs, the water stress, the access roads, the trucks?

    The alarm bells are there for a reason. They’ve been ringing for years now; in the media, the corridors of power, in our minds. Fracking’s opponents know too that the current regime in Westminster seem set on imposing this process, whoever stands in the way, however many laws they have to change, whatever scraps of remaining integrity they stand to lose in the process. It is crystal clear that, with this current government at least, the hunt for easy money overrides everything else.

    If the regions are belittled or treated as subject, are viewed as being easily dismissed, Cameron can only be set to discover what can happen when hubris meets a groundswell of dissent. But this isn't simply a fight against an established elite, however much that may present an easy narrative. We're up against something much closer to home. It's fight against a mentality that says we can have it both ways, that we can address climate change while procuring dirty gas, that we can thrive as a country if we are prepared to ignore that we are simultaneously laying the country to waste. It’s a fight against complacency towards the invisible hand of industrialism where we are trained to ignore that which we all take for granted. We have the resources and skills for the energy revolution that is happening all over the world which Johns describes so well. But we also need to rethink the way in which we use energy, as individuals but also in terms of the physical systems which characterise so much of the way in which our current society works.

    However we look at it, our birds are coming home to roost. For some that may mean trying to push through a process here that already is having an impact on beleaguered, half-forgotten countries where no one complains, or has a voice. For some it is a question of a hard heartened apparently realpolitik where people will eventually be grateful if they could only see the benefits and stop whingeing.

    For many more though it’s a wake up call of unprecedented proportions, where extremity offers us choices, where potential ecological havoc can only make us see all the clearer that there’s never been a better time to do away with business as usual. Fracking’s touted place as a bridging fuel is more than discounted by fugitive methane alone. The process is a death throw of the world of fossil fuels, a world that has offered so much but at a price that only becomes clearer by the day. We have a choice as to whether we go down with it or stand in an acknowledgement of the currency of necessary change. The stakes simply couldn’t be higher.

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branchlines

The posts here originally grew from a website that was set up to advertise a book that describes things a long time ago. That book was always intended to address more than any single issue, even if it encompassed that as well.

At its broadest, I hoped it could help express how things can be when anyone of us acts on behalf of the environment, of their community, of our collective future itself. It was informed by far more than simply the times it describes; it was an attempt to articulate a feeling that has carried on and grown and means more than just a narrow 'us and them'.

I'm mainly working on other writing at the moment but thought there was probably something to be said for keeping these posts online while the issues they deal with remain relevant. I hope you find something on these pages that proves of interest or use as we all rise to meet the new times.

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