Here’s something you won’t have read in the many obituaries of James Lovelock — best known for his ‘Gaia’ hypothesis that the Earth is a living organism — who died last week on his 103rd birthday.
In 2010, he told the Guardian that ‘the UK should be going mad for fracking’, declaring that our untapped reserves of shale gas were essential for the country’s energy security. This was despite the fact that he had been one of the most apocalyptic prophets of the risks to human existence from global warming caused by man-made CO2 emissions — calling it ‘Gaia’s revenge’. But Lovelock also believed claims for the reliability of renewable energy — intermittent wind and solar power — were exaggerated.
He was above all a practical scientist: he worked as a sort of ‘Q’ figure for MI5 into his 90s and was the inventor of both the microwave and the electron capture detector, which first identified the presence of man-made gases in the ozone layer. (He never profited from either, as he didn’t take out patents.)
Lovelock saw Britain’s vast shale gas reserves as the ideal secure, transitional fuel source. ‘I lived through the Second World War and there was no way in 1939 that we could beat the Germans,’ he said. ‘But we were just bloody lucky to live on an island. That gave us time to pull our forces together so that we could hit back. We are in a very similar position now. Fracking buys us some time and we can learn to adapt.’
Now that there is another war in Europe, and Russia is using its grip on the continental gas-supply market to threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of citizens at the end of its pipelines, his metaphor seems much less far-fetched.
Tory leadership favourite Liz Truss is pictured at the Women’s European Championships final
So, as the energy price cap is forecast to hit an average £3,500 by October because of the gas supply shortage, what do the two candidates to replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader say when asked if they would drop the moratorium their own government has imposed on land-based gas exploration and production?
Interviewed on TalkTV last week, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak gave an identical answer: ‘Yes, if local communities support it.’
On hearing this, I called Natascha Engel. The former Labour MP for North Derbyshire had been given the job of the UK’s first ‘Shale Gas Commissioner’, but resigned in April 2019 in disgust at the Government’s refusal to change its absurd requirement that any subterranean tremors caused by the hydraulic fracturing of the shale-bearing rocks should not exceed 0.5 on the Richter scale.
The Government claimed this was the advice of those most qualified to judge, but it was nothing of the kind. No fewer than 49 geo-scientists had written a public letter, pointing out that the 0.5 limit was not just ‘so low as to threaten the potential development of a shale gas industry in the UK’ but ‘far below the levels set for comparable industries in the UK, such as quarrying, mining, and deep geothermal energy’.
In the U.S., where shale gas development has made that country not just entirely self-sufficient in (cheap) gas, but also the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, the limits on seismic disturbance are between 2 and 4.5 on the Richter scale, depending on location.
Despite Mr Sunak’s purported statements in favour of fracking, the industry is not convinced
Note that the Richter scale is logarithmic, so a 0.5 magnitude tremor is more than 3,000 times smaller than one of magnitude 4. Yet there has not been a single casualty from the seismic vibrations caused miles underground by the fracking process in the U.S.
Natascha Engel launched a broadside against the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, after he refused to change the regulation: ‘A perfectly viable industry is being wasted because of a government policy driven by environmental lobbying rather than science, evidence, and a desire to see UK industry flourish . . . We are also depriving the Treasury of huge tax revenues, which could be spent on schools or the NHS.’
Do last week’s qualified words of encouragement from Truss and Sunak give Ms Engel hope that this ‘paralysis’ — as she put it — will now end? No, she told me: ‘It won’t happen because the Government has no long-term strategic approach — even now. They will back down at the first burst of protest, and will only be thinking of how to save as many seats as they can at the next election. They won’t change anything, until the lights go out.’
Which, indeed, might happen — and would probably mark the extinction of the chances of a fifth successive election victory for the Conservatives. They should remember that the principal reason for the party’s removal from power in the general election of February 1974 was that Ted Heath’s government had mismanaged the coal industry, leaving millions of homes in the dark during winter.
It’s true that it will take years rather than months to funnel into our homes the shale gas detected by geologists (about 50 years’ supply of total national demand, assuming just 10 per cent of the estimated reserves are extractable).
But that amounts to an even more damning verdict on the many years that have been wasted by government dithering and pandering to the likes of Extinction Rebellion and Friends Of the Earth: the latter has become little more than an anti-fracking protest group.
Incidentally, Friends of the Earth had in 2017 been ordered by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to withdraw its leaflets claiming that ‘the fluid used in fracking contains chemicals dangerous to human health and that there is an established risk of the chemicals concerned causing cancer and other conditions in the local population’. After 14 months’ investigation, the ASA determined that these claims were entirely without foundation or evidence.
But you can be sure the same false claims will be made, if the Government were to lift its effective moratorium on such gas exploration. And those locals in favour of such developments will, once again, be demonised by paid protesters (Extinction Rebellion has a large budget to make sure that its shock troops aren’t out of pocket).
This was made clear by Lorraine Allanson, a Yorkshirewoman who in 2014 set up a group called Friends of Ryedale Gas Exploration (FORGE), since she welcomed the jobs and industry that would be brought to her area.
In her book, My Story — One Woman’s Battle Against The Environmental Army, Allanson recalled: ‘National activists who protest as a profession descend on communities and take over the narrative. They used scaremongering propaganda to intimidate and silence my community from having a voice. I was personally targeted by activists and had to fight hard to save my business . . . they want to de-industrialise our country so we end up importing everything.’ Most notably, gas.
And if any reader of this article asks if I would like to live near an extractive industrial site, my answer is that our home in beautiful East Sussex is little more than a mile from the county’s largest reserve of calcium sulphate, used to make plasterboard. The miners run a round-the-clock operation, conducting controlled explosions 300ft or so below the surface. I’ve never met a local who is bothered by this, but many who welcome the employment.
The exceptionally high temperatures in the UK on two days a fortnight ago will doubtless be cited by protesters against onshore gas extraction. But for those who still have open minds, I draw your attention to a letter in the Times last week from three academic experts: Professor Peter Edwards, Professor Peter Dobson and Dr Gari Owen.
They point out that on that hottest recorded day in the UK, ‘solar energy output contributed only 7 per cent on average towards our energy requirements according to National Grid data. On that same day, natural gas contributed an average of 44 per cent, remaining the mainstay of the UK energy mix’.
They point out that solar panels work well when it’s sunny, but not when it’s blisteringly hot: high surface temperatures on the panels ‘significantly reduce their efficiency’.
Who knew? James Lovelock did.