On fracking and wind we are having the wrong debates
Discussion of climate change and the wider public interest has been jettisoned in the rush to lobby against alternatives
It’s been a big week for alternative energy sources. On Tuesday, the British Geological Survey effectively greenlit fracking, with its conclusion that the earthquake risk was low. Tomorrow National Opposition to Windfarms launches its campaign in the House of Lords. My instincts are pro-wind and anti-fracking, from a straight climate change perspective: wind is renewable and not harmful, while shale gas is not renewable and contributes as much or more – much more, according to a study by Cornell University – to the greenhouse effect than either oil or coal.
The anti-fracking lobby should just stick with this argument – that if you’re serious about halting global warming you have to concentrate on energy sources that don’t contribute to it. However they don’t want to – believing, possibly correctly, that the political will to prevent irreparable climate change just isn’t there.
Instead, the anti-frackers range freely around in their opposition; some of it’s grounded and some isn’t. What strikes me is the similarity in approach from the anti-wind camp and the anti-frackers.
First, they talk about the aesthetics of these energy sources – National Opposition to Windfarms talks about windfarms destroying tourism, and their opening gambit is that the area becomes so unspeakably unattractive that people will simply stop going there. In the Ribble Valley and across the areas affected by fracking, the sheer ugliness of industry is emphasised.
There’s a counter-argument in both cases. The aesthetics of windfarms are pretty subjective – some people like them. National Opposition to Windfarms quotes a survey from the Welsh Tourist Board in which 71% of respondents said turbines spoilt the environment; Renewables UK quotes a survey in which an almost identical proportion, 75%, finds the effect of turbines either positive or neutral.
Fracking occurs predominantly underground, so while heavy machinery is rarely attractive, it’s nothing like as ugly as a coal mine or a nuclear power station. But, more important, unless you’re prepared to stop using energy or you have an alternative, “I don’t like the look of it” isn’t enough. “It’s too expensive to produce” isn’t enough, either – it will look a lot less expensive when the existing energy sources run out.
Windfarms are ahead of frackers in the way they comprehend their obligations. They pay rent to landowners but also £1,000 per megawatt a year to the community – and this sector is also creating a new model for small-scale finance. You can, from Saturday, invest in a wind turbine in the Forest of Dean for as little as £5, with the expectation of a return. More on that another day; there are so far no small-scale investment plans for fracking the Bowland Basin in Lancashire.
But there is a huge swath of shale gas in the north of England; the mineral rights are owned by the crown. That money could be sucked into the centre, or it could be kept in Lancashire, dispersed to local authorities. What would the north-south divide look like then? Is there any requirement to privilege local companies in the granting of contracts, either for wind energy or shale gas? Where there isn’t, why isn’t there?
What would society look like if the shareholders in its major energy companies were regular people on median incomes? What would it look like if the people living above the gas supplies were its beneficiaries? These questions will affect the wealth distribution of this country for the next 200 years. And yet what does the debate concentrate on? How many jobs are created building a road to the well site? How much a unit of wind energy costs to produce? It’s so narrow as to be a distraction.
Finally, both the anti-winds and the anti-frackers are guilty of such overstatement as to collapse their arguments. Respectable anti-windfarmers generally don’t make the case for adverse health effects, but on the ground protesters are still talking about infrasound and flicker, and how they cause suicide. National Opposition to Windfarms claims losses to bird life that are disputed by crowning bird fanciers the RSPB. Anti-frackers claim that France has a moratorium on fracking because it has learned and understood the lessons of the film Gasland.
If this is true, it is remarkable: not just because France’s geology is different to that of the film’s US location, but also because the scientific arguments lodged in that film are nothing like a done deal. There’s a scene in which someone turns on a tap, and gas comes out that you can light with a match. Scientists contest that this was localised methane in the aquifer and nothing to do with the fracking process. Thermogenic methane is associated with gas production, while biogenic methane isn’t, and it’s apparently easy to tell the difference.
People counter with “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” – that point was made by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission of Colorado – but you can’t cherrypick the science that suits you and reject that which doesn’t. Frackers, incidentally, believe France’s moratorium is linked to lobbying by the nuclear industry. As enjoyable as it is to see big businesses eat each other for a change, it’s not exactly the sight of everything working in the public interest.
I remain pro-wind and anti-fracking; but my main worry is that both will go ahead, and the real concerns of energy users – proximal or not – won’t be resolved or even discussed, just swamped under anxious misinformation.
• This article was amended on 20 April. The original referred to the British Geological Society. This has been amended