Thursday, May 26, 2016

Drill, Baby, Drill!

Published as a podcast at on Friday 27th May 2016

Hello this is Anthony Day with the latest Sustainable Futures Report.

Yes, this week it’s all about fracking as North Yorkshire County Council gives the go-ahead. A giant cruise liner leaves Southampton and leaves under a cloud. And who’s flying a kite? Under water? Do you have a buy-to-let or investment property? Will it meet the new energy efficiency requirements? All this and more.

This week the big news of course is that North Yorks county council have  approved the application by Third Energy for fracking at Kirby Misperton. This is a village just outside the North York Moors National Park in what Lord Howell, father-in-law of Chancellor Osborne, once charmingly described as the desolate north-east. 

There are two sides to every argument although it is not clear whether they are evenly balanced. For example, there were well over 4,000 written objections to the planning application and only some 37 submissions in its favour. Third Energy dismissed most of the objections on the grounds that 64% were an identical form letter. I think this is completely disingenuous. If 4,000 people object to something they may well all object on the same grounds. If they sign a petition they are all putting their names to the same statement and for that matter if they vote in a referendum they are all making the same point, or at least one of only two points. That doesn’t devalue their opinion. Looking at some of the objections, and they are all available on the North Yorkshire county council website, they vary from loss of amenity to risks from pollution, particularly to the water table, to objections to the production of a fuel which will add to greenhouse gases.

Third Energy argue that this is merely a test drilling on a site which they have operated successfully and without harm to the environment for 20 years. Yes, fracking uses large quantities of water, but they already have access to water on site, so it won’t have to be trucked in. Opponents of the scheme point out that the purpose of the test is to find out whether commercial scale fracking is viable in the area and so this is not just about one test well. Indeed, as I reported last year, Kevin Hollinrake the local MP told Parliament that 900 wells would be needed in his constituency alone. Not all of these would have local water supplies and all of them would have to deal with contaminated water extracted from the site. The substantial increase in heavy goods traffic on the narrow roads of one of the nation’s principal tourist areas was the theme of many objections.

Of course there’s an energy security argument. At present we get up to 20% of our natural gas by ship from Qatar in the Persian Gulf. It’s not the world’s most stable region! Third Energy also pointed out that importing gas across the ocean has a far greater carbon footprint than extracting and using it in here in the UK. We’ll hear all about the carbon footprint of shipping in the next item. Still, it was mentioned in last year’s parliamentary debate that some 10,000 wells would be needed to replace what we import by sea.

Some people objected on the grounds that the process of fracking and extraction leads to fugitive gases. By this they mean that small volumes of gas, mainly methane, would inevitably leak from pipes and valves. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2 . Third Energy’s response was that their business is harvesting methane so they would do everything they could to prevent any of it getting away. This is a misleading argument because potential losses are probably tiny fractions of one percent of production, with at least 99.99% of the gas being recovered. It’s impossible to trap that last 0.01%, but that would be enough to cause damage. Compare it with a bee sting. When a bee stings you it injects up to 50 micrograms of venom - a tiny amount compared to your bodyweight. Nevertheless it causes pain, discomfort and swelling - and even death in some cases. The venom is the catalyst which triggers the process which does the damage. The same is true of greenhouse gases. The concentration of 400 parts per million seems low in absolute terms, but it’s more than enough to trigger climate change. The catalytic effect means that tiny amounts can have major consequences.

The council and its officers are restricted in the grounds on which they can reject an application for permission to frack. If they exceed their powers they can of course be sued and in any case there is always the possibility of an appeal against the decision. In the case of fracking applicants can appeal, but by law objectors cannot. Compare this with the law on wind turbines. Anyone can object to the erection of a wind turbine and a single objection is sufficient for a council to reject the application. Already this has had a significant effect on the wind industry.

Paul Ekins, Professor of Energy and Environment Policy at UCL, told Radio 4’s Today programme that the price of gas had fallen by 75% and he thought it was unlikely that fracking in the UK would be economically viable. There is an oversupply of gas on world markets, as there is of oil. Much has been made of the fact that regulations on fracking are tighter in the UK than in the US. None of the American horror stories could happen here. But Professor Ekins pointed out that the Environment Agency, like much of the public sector, has been subject to cuts. There might be sufficient staff to monitor exploratory wells but it would be impossible to enforce the regulations on fracking at a commercial scale. I spoke last week about a shortage of skills. Here’s another example. Skills cannot be conjured up on demand.

The government makes much of the potential for jobs and investment as a result of fracking. There may be jobs, but not for local people because again the skills are not there. There may be investment and increased tax revenues, but there may be bankruptcies as there have been throughout the American fracking industry.

What’s my view? Well I’m against it. 
  • Fracking produces a gas which is a greenhouse gas - methane- and produces greenhouse gas - CO2 - when it’s used. 
  • According to the Royal Academy of Engineering it will be years before fracking reaches commercial production, so it won’t do anything to avoid the looming energy gap.

What should we do instead? We should manage demand. I think I’ve said this before. Where you’re sitting now, have you got the lights on? Is it dark outside? No? Well I’ll just pause a moment while you go and turn them off. But of course it’s about much more than lights and much more than electricity. It’s about how and where you drive. It’s about improving the energy efficiency of making and delivering products and services. It’s about choosing clothes for cold weather, not just turning up the heating.

Where do we go from here? Kirby Misperton is just the start. If permits are granted in other areas, if fleets of lorries start rolling through the Tory shires on their way to fracking sites and objectors find that the legal system is stacked against them I expect a backlash which will rock and maybe topple the government. Especially when people find that fracking does nothing to lower energy bills and especially if a hard winter leads to extensive blackouts. Perhaps that will lead the government to develop a sensible energy policy which involves all sources of energy, which manages people’s expectations and manages demand within the capability of the ageing infrastructure that we have left.

Just a thought, if we vote for Brexit will the French turn off the link under the Channel which provides a significant amount of French electricity to meet the UK’s peak demand? No, of course not.

Stop Press!
Just as I finish writing this I get an email from 38 degrees pointing me to an article on Huffington Post: 
“Under Section 49 of the new Infrastructure Act 2015,” it says,  “the Government must seek independent advice from Lord Deben’s Climate Change Committee on whether shale gas production can be compatible with future carbon emissions targets.
In a previous study, the committee concluded that the new energy technology can only go ahead “if production is regulated sufficiently to ensure that fugitive methane emissions are low”.
It also wanted shale gas production to be accompanied by “a strong commitment to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions” by setting a power sector decarbonisation target.
The CCC’s new report was submitted it to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd more than 6 weeks ago on 30th March.
And under the Act, Ministers are meant to present that report to Parliament “as soon as practicable” after April 1st 2016 - yet it still remains unpublished.”

The email also quotes reports on the impact of fracking from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment (part of the LSE) and from Scientific American, among others.

Let’s take a break from all that heavy stuff. Have you ever fancied a cruise?

Sailing Away

Last Sunday the world’s largest cruise liner, Harmony of the Seas, left Southampton on its maiden voyage. The Telegraph reports that 2,100 crew will be responsible for 6,410 guests over 16 decks and 2,747 staterooms. The vessel has seven neighbourhoods and it even has its own park, which contains 10,587 plants, 48 vine plants and 52 trees. A total of 11,252 works of art are showcased across the ship.

The Guardian ran this story, but unsurprisingly with a different slant. Air pollution from cruise ships is getting worse every year, it says. The Harmony of the Seas has two four-storey high 16-cylinder engines which would, at full power, each burn 1,377 US gallons of fuel an hour, or about 66,000 gallons a day of some of the most polluting diesel fuel in the world. Southampton, which has Britain’s second largest container port and is Europe’s busiest cruise terminal, is one of nine UK cities cited by the World Health Organisation as breaching air quality guidelines. Residents complain that it is emissions from cruise liners and cargo vessels which are ruining local air quality. While in port and when close to some coasts ships are required to use low sulphur fuel or abatement technologies, but on the high seas they can burn what they like. One commentator has suggested that the fuel that they use would have to be treated as hazardous waste if it ever arrived onshore. The sulphur content alone is more than 3,000 times as high as in road diesel.

To put it into context, such a large ship as the Harmony will emit more sulphur than several million cars,  and over five tonnes of nitrous oxide and a half a ton of particulates each day. Thousands of cruise ships and thousands of cargo ships are all adding pollution which is damaging air quality and leading to the many thousands of premature deaths that we've reported in other episodes. And these emissions are also adding to the global total of greenhouse gases. There is group called the Sustainable Shipping Initiative which is a consortium of shipowners and related organisations.. You can find them at They have produced a ROADMAP TO A SUSTAINABLE SHIPPING INDUSTRY BY 2040, which covers a wide range of challenges and looks at a wide range of solutions. They recognise the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while anticipating a doubling of the fleet by the end of the 2020s. They consider issues such as deep sea mining, floating wind generation, expansion of coastal traffic off Africa and the need to combat piracy. They urge more government support and foresee new methods of propelling ships, including hybrid power trains and wind power. Unfortunately Royal Caribbean, owners of Harmony of the Seas, are not part of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative.

Did I say that wind was a new way of powering ships? Well there is a new way of using wind for powering ships. I came across Skysails GmbH, a German manufacturer of large kites. According to its website:

“Wind is the cheapest, most powerful, and greenest source of energy on the high seas.
“Now, with SkySails, modern cargo ships can use the wind as a source of power – not only to lower fuel costs, but significantly reduce emission levels as well.
“The worldwide patented SkySails propulsion system consists of three main components: a towing kite with rope, a launch and recovery system, and a control system for automated operation.
“SkySails can be installed effortlessly as an auxiliary propulsion system on both new builds and existing vessels.
“The SkySails propulsion system is efficient, safe, and easy to use – and the fact that wind is cheaper than oil makes SkySails one of world’s most attractive technologies for simultaneously reducing operating costs and emissions.
Interested? Speak with us! We will be happy to visit you at your office or on board 
your ship.”

Use of a SkySails system is claimed to reduce a cargo vessel's fuel consumption by an average of 10 to 35 percent annually, and by up to 50 percent temporarily. Due to its "dynamic flight manoeuvres," the kite reportedly generates 5 to 25 times more power per square meter sail area than a conventional sail. (Apparently this means that it’s constantly looping in a figure-of-eight pattern.) A study by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization suggested that up to 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved each year, if the technology was broadly applied to the world's merchant fleet.

It appears that there are currently three SkySails systems in use on cargo vessels, including one prototype. Three more are planned. Presumably the low price of oil is depressing the market at the moment, and the oil which shipping uses is probably of very low value because it can’t be used anywhere else.

Serendipity Corner

While I was researching this item on kites at sea I came across Minesto and their Deep Green power plant. This is a kite, but it’s a tethered kite and it’s tethered at the bottom of the sea. Like the SkySail, it's designed to describe a constant figure of eight pattern. This means that it is actually moving significantly faster than the water currents in which it is located. The kite, or wing, has a turbine in the centre of it which produces electricity. The electricity cable runs along the tether to the seabed and then along a subsea cable to shore. At the moment the system is undergoing trials in Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland. It is claimed that because of the motion of the unit it can generate significantly more power from slow flowing tides than a fixed turbine would achieve. It can operate in depths between 60 and 120m, so it would not cause the same hazard to shipping that an offshore wind turbine might. What the actual output will be and how difficult it will be to maintain these units is yet to be determined. More at 

And finally, do you have a buy-to-let or an investment property?
Neil Dady of TBS Technical Business Solutions reminds me that commercial property landlords in England are legally required to upgrade the energy efficiency of their properties to at least an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) band 'E' standard by 2018, before they can be leased to new or renewing tenants. As from the 1st April 2018 there will be a requirement for any properties rented out in the private rented sector to normally have a minimum energy performance rating of E on an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). The regulations will come into force for new lets and renewals of tenancies with effect from 1st April 2018 and for all existing tenancies on 1st April 2020. It will be unlawful to rent a property which breaches the requirement for a minimum E rating, unless there is an applicable exemption. A civil penalty of up to £4,000 will be imposed for breaches. 

According to estate agents Knight Frank it is estimated that approximately 20% of non-domestic properties could be in the F & G rating brackets.

It’s also worth noting that from 1st APRIL this year regulations have introduced a right for tenants to request energy efficiency improvements that a landlord cannot unreasonably refuse. You may need to make changes well before 2018.

You can contact TBS on  0800 169 93 55 or There is also information on the government website.

Well, that’s it.

I’m Anthony Day and I’m looking forward to the Bank Holiday weekend. Of course that means I shall only have a four-day week next week to write the next edition of the Sustainable Futures Report. No, three days, because it’s my wife’s birthday on Wednesday. No, two days, because it’s got to be done by Thursday night. It’ll be there!

Meanwhile, there are two places left on the Sustainable Best Practice Mastermind group. Let me know if you want a copy of the prospectus - and put 7th July in your diary for the first meeting.

Until next week! 

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