The Science of Power
Bill Hartley defends Fracking
April 10th 2019 dawned with a light covering of frost over North Yorkshire. Despite this, the local BBC news announced there would be an open air tea party in the village of Kirby Misperton. The village’s population of 370 wished to celebrate the fact that it had been ‘free of Fracking for a year’.
Kirby Misperton lies in the scenic and rural Ryedale District of North Yorkshire. Anti-Fracking campaigners here have a website. The site is an example of a single issue edging towards monomania. It may be Ryedale at the moment but tomorrow it could be you, is the ominous message. There is no sense of a wider community beyond Kirby Misperton or the benefits to the nation of energy security. Incidentally, according to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, this country spends £400,000,000 per month on imported gas. HM Mines Inspectorate estimates that if properly developed, Fracking has the potential to create 300,000 new jobs and reduce our dependence on imported supplies. None of this matters to the folk of Kirby Misperton: the big picture is displaced by a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude, masked by bad science and some shroud waving.
Entirely absent from the website is any argument as to why it shouldn’t be Kirby Misperton. After all, Fracking takes up very little land and doesn’t require much in the way of infrastructure. There are no unsightly slag heaps or other features of old style resource exploitation. ‘It is our children and grandchildren we should be worried about’ the writer solemnly warns, without explaining why. This invariably happens when objectors come up against hard science. It’s easier to swerve round the tough questions and rely instead on an appeal to the emotions.
One person who has benefitted from Fracking is the owner of a local B&B. Perhaps she saw a business opportunity and accommodated some of the workers from the site. This lady was given the verbal equivalent of a tarring and feathering. In Kirby Misperton, it seems, only one view is acceptable.
Protestors talk about ‘chemicals’ used in the Fracking process which can leach into the water table even though drilling takes place way below that level. When this has happened it has usually been attributable to badly lined bore holes. The people of Kirby Misperton interviewed by the BBC were full of sound bite comments ranging from the financial health of Third Energy, the company with a license to drill there and the familiar but vague ‘health of our children’ argument. Yet a professor of chemistry who lectured on the subject at the Mining Institute in Newcastle last year pointed out that there are fewer emissions from a Fracking site than from a dairy farm. Those seeking an alternative view should visit the ReFine website, which belongs to a non-partisan interdisciplinary team from Newcastle and other universities who carry out research into Fracking.
The Kirby Misperton website is a typical example of the dearth of coherent discussion on energy sources. Why bother to research the subject when it’s easier to take the view that if it comes out of the ground then it must be bad. Fracking, we are told, causes earthquakes. What anti-frackers fail to mention is that the number of earthquakes in Great Britain has been falling in recent decades, coinciding with the decline in coal mining. Their preferred alternative, choosing weak energy sources such as wind and solar power, means taking up large amounts of land to site solar panels and windmills, which would certainly have the effect of spoiling the view around Kirby Misperton.
When a village website avoids hard science, relying instead on emotion, is the real issue what fracking might do to property values? This is a familiar enough story in North Yorkshire. Not far from Kirkby Misperton an application to extend a 150 year old quarry was greeted with horror by some local villagers who ‘feared an increase in road traffic’: this despite the fact that the quarry lies right next to the A1, the obvious route for shifting a bulk commodity.
In contrast, over in West Cumbria beyond the nice bits in the Lake District, coal is making a modest comeback. Just recently, Germany closed its last remaining anthracite mines. This is coal of the best quality which is used in the metallurgical industries. Incidentally, according to US environmentalist Michael Shellenberger, Germany’s emission levels have been flat since 2009 despite committing $580 billion to a renewables heavy electrical grid by 2025 (with a 50% increase in electricity prices). France has done rather better where they rely heavily on nuclear energy, something the Germans rejected in a response to the Fukashima disaster of 2015. Seeing an opportunity, the West Cumbria Coal Company sought and obtained planning permission for a new mine bringing with it the promise of 165 jobs to this remote corner of North West England. The coal is of a type which will be used by the British & European steel industries. To the horror of the environmental lobby, Labour, Conservative and even Lib Dem councillors united to approve the project, havingconcluding that jobs for their constituents were the priority. Extinction Rebellion joined with the Greens in opposing the scheme but don’t expect any sit down protests in West Cumbria. It is a difficult place to reach, particularly by public transport.
In South Wales, something similar has been happening. According to a BBC report last year, Neath Port Talbot local councillors voted unanimously to support an application for the reopening of the Aberpergwn mine in the Neath Valley. The mine, which has been mothballed, will provide 200 jobs when fully operational. Employment prospects in two areas badly hit by the decline of traditional industries have prompted councillors to override objections and make jobs the priority. When granting a license to Frack, North Yorkshire County councillors may have had the bigger picture in mind too. Kirby Misperton is an example of what happens when resource exploitation is attempted in the nicer parts of Britain.