Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Fracking - the saga continues

Will fracking be David Cameron's Poll Tax?

But first, here’s a date for your diary. Thursday 5th November 2015 at the Harrogate International Showground will see the Sustainable Best Practice in Business Conference: ESOS and energy, supply chain and skills. We’re inviting the minister from DECC, Amber Rudd; the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman; Lord Redesdale from the Institute of Energy Managers and other industry representatives. It will be an opportunity to learn from experts and to network and share best practice with your peers. Registration opens shortly. More details soon.

This last week was a busy week and events developed almost faster than I could keep up. Fracking is once more in the news, there’s a report that soil erosion in East Anglia could seriously affect our food production, electricity could be cheaper but dirtier, what’s going on in Battersea Park?, it’s getting hot in the Tube and I talk to Daniel White from Global Energy Systems on why you need a heat pump. Well, perhaps not today, but the word is that this weather won’t last, in spite of global warming.

Last week I reported that the application for test drilling and test fracking at Roseacre Wood was refused by Lancashire county council. This week, against the advice of planners and legal experts, the council also refused the application for Little Plumpton. I expect there was dancing in the streets. This looks like a very high risk strategy because councillors were warned that they were very unlikely to win on appeal and the council would have to pay all the legal costs. On the other hand, an appeal will be a landmark case. It will meet the government head-on on one of its flagship policies. There was a debate in parliament this week and it revealed all sorts of things which I'm sure the government would like to keep quiet, but which will almost certainly come out if the case goes to court. I’ve been reading Hansard, the official Parliamentary record, and here are some of the things that I found in the record of last Tuesday’s debate.
Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) in North Yorkshire opened the debate and commented that France, Germany, New York state and others had all banned fracking. He then spoke about “Shale Gas: Rural Economy Impacts” a report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and told us that it had 63 redactions within 13 pages. That means that 63 items had been blacked out or censored, including of a whole section on the impact on house prices. The Government’s position that “There is a strong public interest in withholding the information” did not go down well with his constituents.

Then, a day after this debate, the government was required to publish the DEFRA report in its uncensored form. It includes admissions such as:
  • people living near fracking sites could see their house prices fall by up to seven per cent.
  • a UK shale gas boom could lead to an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions. 
  • waste fluids leaking from fracking operations in the US have resulted in environmental damage.
  • properties could incur additional insurance premiums if they are within a five mile radius of fracking operations.
  • the report includes "early, often vague, assumptions which are not supported by appropriate evidence”.

No wonder they wanted to keep all that quiet!

 Kevin Hollinrake had other concerns as well. He said he would like to see a clearer, more robust and independent monitoring regime for the regulations.

“The operator commissions and pays for the services of the well examiner… This might be someone employed by the well operator’s organisation.” 

He quoted evidence provided to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee stating that  "the weakest point of the regulatory process concerns the Environment Agency”, which appears to have “insufficient in-house expertise.”

He also told us that fracking company Third Energy, had stated that it might drill 950 wells in less than a third of his constituency, which would require hundreds of thousands of lorry movements, all in one of the country’s most beautiful counties, with an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab) was concerned about projected production figures from DECC as they were based on the maximum output from any well ever achieved in the US. He thought this was an unrealistic baseline. He said that 10,000 to 18,000 wells would be needed nationally to replace the gas which we currently import from Qatar. These would not be scattered all over the country but would be concentrated in Lancs and the Weald in the southeast. They would have a life of about 20 years, but would need re-drilling every 7 years or so. New pipelines would have to be built across the country or lorries would have to collect the gas. This is in addition to the thousands of lorry journeys needed to deliver the fracking fluids. After 20 years the sites would be abandoned. He suggested that AD, converting agricultural waste to gas, should be considered as an alternative. This process could continue as long as farmers were in business, not just for 20 years.

Farmers in South Ribble are particularly concerned about fracking. Seema Kennedy MP said any pollution of groundwater could contaminate their crops and destroy their business. The Ribble Valley is one of the most fertile parts of the country and produces a major part of the nation’s salad crop.

The debate continued, with concerns raised about the regulations, the disposal of used fracking liquids and the effects on house prices and on public health. Two MPs were firmly in favour of fracking, two were cautious, most were opposed.

Andrea Leadsom The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, responded to the debate emphasising the need for energy security and stating that “We are likely to continue relying on gas to provide much of our heat, as well as to generate electricity into the 2030s…Flexible electricity generation, such as that fuelled by gas, is also needed to help balance the electricity grid as our policies bring forward relatively inflexible and intermittent low-carbon generation.”

She talked about the benefits of a successful shale gas industry, not just in energy security, but in direct benefits to jobs, growth and community investment. And she promised a sovereign wealth fund - with the industry’s commitment to putting £100,000 per exploration well to local communities and then a minimum of 1% of any subsequent production revenues. Local councils would retain 100% of the business rates that they collect from productive shale gas developments.

“Ernst and Young, she said, has estimated that a thriving shale industry could mean 64,500 jobs nationally or over 100 jobs per year at a typical site. The value of the supply chain for the industry has been estimated at £33 billion between 2016 and 2032. This is an incredible opportunity. We are at a pre-beginning phase, but there is a huge amount to play for. British engineering is at the forefront of the world and we have the opportunity to showcase that further by developing for ourselves a safe and environmentally sound shale gas industry.”

What do I think?

It’s still a fossil fuel. It still has a carbon footprint. We have a commitment to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint. 

When he heard that the applications had been rejected the chief executive of Cuadrilla repeated the point that sourcing gas locally was far more secure than buying it from Qatar or Russia. True, and there’s no doubt that we have an energy problem as our power stations age and the margin between supply and winter demand gets tighter and tighter. But gas is not the only answer, and we don’t yet know that it is an answer. That’s why they are carrying out test drilling. On the other hand we already know that solar panels and wind turbines and anaerobic digesters all work. Yes, they are intermittent, (not the digesters), but the old complaint that electricity cannot be stored is increasingly untrue. Tesla recently announced new domestic battery packs: technology is advancing rapidly. And there are other technologies apart from batteries that can store energy. To anyone who says we haven’t got time I would simply say that even if everything goes strictly to plan, it will be at least five years before fracking starts producing gas commercially. And it will be a very, very long time before we have 10,000 wells in production. But what about demand? We waste vast amounts of energy. Managing demand is essential. Bring back the Green Deal - or at least something like it that actually works. (That will create jobs, too!)

And why do I call fracking David Cameron’s Poll Tax? Well the poll-tax was brought in by Margaret Thatcher against the advice of her ministers and against strong opposition in the country which led to riots. The poll-tax was repealed and replaced with the council tax and it was the beginning of the end for Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister of Great Britain. The majority of MPs who opposed fracking in this debate were from David Cameron’s own Conservative Party. He is going to find implementing this policy extremely difficult. Almost as hard as the Third Runway at Heathrow. But that’s another story.

Meanwhile, in other news this week, Moody’s published a report suggesting that electricity is likely to get cheaper as we increase our capacity to import it from the continent. Their electricity is cheaper because at least in Germany their lower carbon taxes encourage them to generate more electricity from coal. Cheaper, but dirtier.

The Committee on Climate Change warns that agricultural land, particularly in East Anglia, could become unviable within a generation unless something is done. We’ll have to add still more to the 40% of food that we already import, with consequences for food security and food prices. East Anglia grows acres of wheat and farmers have removed trees and grubbed up hedges to make fields ever larger and to give ploughs and combine harvesters long straight runs. Britain has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, and these changes in land management are accelerating the problem. Without trees as windbreaks the wind is blowing the soil away. As climate change reduces rainfall and warms the soil it crumbles to dust and the problem only gets worse. When rain does come, and increasingly it comes in violent storms, it washes the soil away. It’s time to take action and recognise that topsoil is another vital non-renewable resource that is rapidly running out.

What has been going on in Battersea Park? Last weekend saw the final race in the international Formula E series that started in Beijing last September and saw meetings in Buenos Aires, Miami, Monte Carlo, Berlin and Moscow before the final in London. Yes, it’s Formula 1, but not as we know it! For example, when the drivers make for the pits it’s not to change the tyres, or top up the washer bottle but to pick up a completely new car - with a fully charged battery. My petrolhead friends say it’s not the same. It’s not as fast and it doesn’t make that roar as the cars go past. I’m sure J Clarkson hates it as much as he hates my Toyota Prius. Nevertheless, names like Trulli, Prost and Yamamoto; Renault, Audi and Virgin are taking it seriously. Formula 1 has always been seen as an essential testbed for new automotive technologies. Welcome to the future.

Wednesday 1st July was the hottest July day on record, at 36.7℃. It got up to 35℃ in the London Tube as well. I remember reading somewhere that waste heat is a problem for the network in normal times, with heat from passengers, from the trains, the lights, the escalators and all the other plant. What could they do with it? Maybe they need a heat pump! It so happens that this week I was talking to Daniel White from Global Energy Systems.

Go to www.susbiz.biz to listen to this blog as a podcast and hear the interview with Daniel.

I'm Anthony Day, The Sustainability Coach, dedicated to spreading the word about sustainability, about better ways of doing things so we can all, in all countries, enjoy a comfortable lifestyle in spite of the challenges from rising population, climate change, energy shortages and all the other sustainability issues. 

Let’s get out there and find opportunities!

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