Monday, 12 November 2012

I may have stirred up a hornet's nest in Frome. Part II

My letter to the Somerset Standard got such a response that I thought I'd better break it up into two more manageable sized chunks. My original letter is here, you can see some of the comments it received directly here, and a finally a whole new letters page was devoted to it here. Part I of my response is here, and now I shall continue with Part II, my response to the letters by Helen Moore and John Boxall.

Firstly, here is Helen Moore's response to my letter:

How disappointing that Dr James Verdon, a geophysicist at Bristol University, has to resort to labelling those who oppose fracking as disseminating "biased propaganda", when his own credentials and research interests surely make him seriously biased in favour of hydraulic fracturing (fracking)?

Having completed an internship for Shell, he was clearly influenced in the direction of drilling for and burning hydrocarbons at an early stage in his career. He now describes his principal research interests as lying "in imaging and modelling fractured rocks… monitoring hydro-fracture stimulations for tight and shale gas, and understanding the geomechanical response of producing oil reservoirs".
As a so-called "Earth scientist", Dr Verdon would do well to read the work of Dr Stephan Harding, author of Animate Earth, who points to the ways in which much of modern science and technology is based on the vision of our planet as "a vast dead machine full of 'resources' that have value only when they are converted into money", a world view which is causing untold damage to ecosystems and people around the globe.
Dr Verdon's own response to the perspective that our Earth is alive and animate, a self-regulating super-organism currently reacting to the vast amounts of greenhouse gases being pumped into the atmosphere (ie melting polar caps, increased global temperatures, increased rates of hurricanes, droughts and flooding etc) might then prove his own prejudices.
At a time when any sane person should be rejecting the use of fossil fuels (coal, gas and oil), a UK-wide "dash for gas" makes no sense whatsoever. Moreover, Dr Verdon's argument "that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, locally produced shale gas has no worse a climate change impact than liquefied natural gas imported from Russia or the Middle East" seems utterly spurious.
And the evidence is clear – if we want energy security in the UK, so that we're no longer reliant on foreign regimes with appalling human rights records, we don't need to put up with a technology that creates water contamination levels, even if "below acceptable minima" in places. Instead we could adopt the Centre for Alternative Technology's impressive framework for a Zero Carbon Britain by 2030, which includes substantial job creation for British workers.
But due to his own biases, Dr Verdon is unlikely to be interested in this. Instead he will probably be backing the activities of our supposedly "greenest Government ever", where all kinds of vested interests in oil and gas companies have recently been exposed – visit uk/gas-mafia-infilitrates- greenest-government-ever/
I, however, am proud to live in a town where our Independent councillors have sufficient vision to recognise and to reject the wildly inappropriate technology that is "fracking".
While John Boxall said:   

Unlike Dr James Verdon ("Energy firms will not be selling shale gas to customers cheaply", November 1) my last brush with the academic world was a Department of Transport Basic Sea Survival Course so I could serve as a relief stoker in the Merchant Navy. I have, however, devoted a lot of time to the study of the blindingly obvious.

In my copy of Modern Engines and Power Generators – published in 1905 – the author, Professor Kennedy, expresses concern that the UK would run out of coal. Well, that is basically what has happened to natural gas supplies in the USA and Canada, and is happening to our own reserves.
Unlike the UK, however, North America does not have access to imported supplies, which resulted in a significant rise in gas prices and a drive to find alternative sources – hence fracking. As their market is insulated from world gas prices, unlike the UK, fracking has resulted in a drop in prices.
Now, where I do agree with Dr Verdon is that we are increasingly likely to have to import gas from nations that are "unstable" or have unpleasant governments, however firstly it is estimated that at best fracking will provide about 25 per cent of UK gas requirements and secondly what happens when the frack gas – and the rest of our supplies – run out?
A report by National Grid suggested that gas produced from waste and sewage could provide about 18 per cent of the UK's gas requirements – or about 48 per cent of our domestic consumption by 2020 – something coincidentally Nick Cater from Somerset Waste Partnership talked about in his article also on November 1, "Burping bacteria ready to enjoy an electrifying feast". More importantly, unlike frack gas, it's not a resource we will run out of.
Secondly, a lot of our gas is wasted in inefficient appliances and buildings, while I do not have a figure for the savings from more efficient use of gas, given that the figure for potential electricity savings is about 70 per cent – and about 40 per cent of our electricity is generated from gas, clearly we can significantly reduce consumption while keeping our homes warm and lights on. Again, once we install the efficiency measures they stay in place, unlike frack gas.
Unlike the UK and the USA, most other industrialised nations have not had abundant domestic energy supplies, so have had to use energy much more wisely, best summed up by the situation in Germany where energy prices are higher, but bills are lower.

There may be a case for keeping fracking as a reserve technology should we ever find ourselves in serious difficulty, there is however no reason why we should be using it when 35 per cent of UK lofts and 32 per cent of cavity walls are still not insulated. Sadly, however, it seems unlikely that Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat politicians will not take the security of our energy supplies seriously until it is too late. 
Again, I couldn't resist leaving a comment or two, so I initially went for this:
Despite having completed an internship at Shell, my views on shale gas are not a result of ignoring global warming, but because of it. We currently generate 30% of our electricity from coal, which produces twice as much CO2 as from gas. I agree with John Boxall that we should be doing everything we can to improve energy efficiency, and I also agree that bio-gas from waste seems like a no-brainer to me. However, we've known all this for years, yet we've made little headway: are we really likely to see sudden efficiency changes in the next 10-20 years? I'd like it to be so, but knowing human nature I'm not getting my hopes up. With that in mind, shale gas production perhaps holds the key to quickly reducing the CO2 content of our electricity generation mix.

That domestic shale gas has a lower CO2 footprint than imported LNG is not spurious, it was the finding of a recent EU Commission report into the matter (which also came to the conclusion that, with appropriate regulatory regimes in place, shale gas production should be considered).

More importantly, however, is to consider the global context. We could become the greenest country in the world, but it wouldn't matter in the slightest to global warming if China continue to burn coal at the rate they are doing. China has huge shale gas potential: if they can access this gas readily and cheaply, and switch coal for gas in their power stations, this would be the fastest and most dramatic manner of reducing CO2 emissions. The experience from the US is telling in this regard where, as cheap gas has replaced coal in electricity generation, CO2 emissions have plummeted far faster than in Europe, despite our focus on increasing renewable energy (which, incidentally I am also in favour of).
Followed by this:
In reply to Helen Moore, I should add that as a "so-called Earth Scientist", I am familiar with the various dynamic systems that affect earth system processes. While most scientists recoil at the description of the earth as a living being, and the more esoterical and spiritual aspects of his ideas, many of the scientific principles regarding feedback loops in dynamic systems that underpin James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis are widely accepted in the scientific community. 
However, if Helen Moore is so keen on Gaia theory, she should perhaps give due consideration to the recent comments of its original protagonist James Lovelock (with whom Dr Harding has collaborated with extensively), who in a recent Guardian interview came out strongly in favour of shale gas development because of the potential rapid benefits in CO2 emissions reductions they could confer in replacing coal-fired generation. The link is below: 
Again, as per my last post, I'd love to have feedback as to whether I'm coming across as reasoned and relatively impartial, or a crazed planet-destroyer? Or whether Helen Moore sounds reasonable, or a crazy eco-loon? Feel free to hide behind internet anonymity and be as mean as you'd like.

I find these responses saddening because they represent an increasing separation between science and the environmental or 'green' movement. Once upon a time science and green movements were pretty close bedfellows. After all, it was science that first identified the risks presented by the shrinking ozone layer. Science that first identified that our CO2 emissions were causing the planet to warm. The green movement has taken that information and made it their own. Which is fine. However, they didn't stop there. They have now taken things much further, and to place where science cannot follow. We see this in a range of issues, from nuclear to GM crops, where scientists and greens are increasingly found on opposite sides of the debate.

I think it's particularly ironic that Helen Moore outlines what I would call 'Lovelock-ian' (i.e. Gaia hypothesis) worldview while making her accusations. In a recent Guardian interview, Lovelock described how the Green movement is becoming closer and closer to a religion or cult:
One thing being a scientist has taught me is that you can never be certain about anything. You never know the truth. You can only approach it and hope you get a bit nearer to it each time. You iterate towards the truth. You don't know it. It's just the way the humans go that if there's a cause of some sort, a religion starts forming around it. It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don't think people have noticed that, but it's got all the sort of terms that religions use.
And of course, when something becomes a religion, anyone with dissenting views must be cast out as heretic. I think that's what just happened to me. In the culture that is being created, dissent becomes intolerable, and anyone expressing a different view must immediately be discredited as a stooge for big oil/big nuclear/big agro.

Compare Helen Moore's letter with John Boxall. I'd describe John's letter as that of a sensible, considered environmentalist. Prepared to consider alternatives, aware of the situation in which we find ourselves. John's letter is the basis for the start of a debate.

Helen only wants to shut debate down. She knows that she is right, she has her solution, and if science disagrees, then science must be wrong. As the green movement goes down this route, all they do is shut down the debate whilst providing ammunition for the Clarksons and Delingpoles of this world to dismiss them as irrelevant hippies. This will be damaging because we need a strong, science based environmental movement to protect our planet. Science shows very clearly that the biggest, quickest and most effective thing we can do to reduce global warming is to get the Chinese to burn gas instead of coal, and China has huge shale gas reserves.

I'll end with a sad but illuminating fact: in the UK recent increases in coal-fired generation (switched from gas) have outweighed all of the savings made from all of the wind farms in the UK.


  1. I think you're coming across as reasonable.

    On the division between science and the green movement, I have resolved the conflict I feel between being an environmentalist, and the irrational, dogmatic behaviour displayed by many of the "green" movement, by choosing environmentalist to mean someone who cares about the environment, and would use reason and science to understand and inform action, and "green" to mean someone who is driven by ideology and dogma, and who claims to care about the environment, but whose actions and rhetoric may or may not actually be useful and helpful to it. If you go for a burrow in the green party manifesto, it's also pretty clear that, for all their rhetoric about democracy and rights, these guys have a very narrow definition of that.