June 30, 2012
David Cameron’s administration is in trouble, on this I think we can all agree. Even my menagerie of house trolls. It’s certainly what I’m hearing from Conservative insiders. “The whole party is on manoeuvres” – someone told me the other day, meaning that every half-way ambitious MP is positioning him or herself to take advantage of the Coalition’s inevitable implosion and Cameron’s almost-as-inevitable downfall. As another Tory boasted to me recently, “If there’s one thing we’re really good at in this party, it’s knifing our failing leaders in the back.”
So what’s Cameron to do? Is there really no way out of this mess for him? Well on current form I’d say definitely no. If Cameron carries on as he is, denying us the promised referendum on Europe, failing to cut government spending by anything like the amount it needs, doing nothing to address the high taxes and overregulation which are stifling small business enterprises, then he is definitely – and rightly – toast and the future will look something like this. 2015 Miliband/monkey in a red rosette wins general election; 2015-2020 Men said openly that Christ and his saints slept. 2020 Alleluia! A red meat Tory gets in, perhaps Boris, perhaps Gove, perhaps someone like Priti Patel…
But there’s still a chance for Dave, if he plays his cards right – and it has just arrived in the form of the new joint report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society on fracking.
Prof Robert Mair, chair of the panel, said: “The risks associated with fracking can be managed effectively in the UK, provided operational best practices are implemented and enforced through effective regulation.”
Never mind all the health and safety provisos: that’s just a*se-covering. The key point – the only point, indeed – of the report is that Cameron’s government now has the excuse it needs to press ahead and take advantage of the best thing that has happened to Britain since the discovery of North Sea oil: shale gas.
I have written on several occasions about the Shale Gas Miracle. The only thing that stands in its way is propaganda, superstition and vested interests. We saw the latter factor heavily at work in the recent sham Downing Street seminar in which “industry experts” concluded that Britain’s shale gas reserves were smaller than first thought and uneconomical to extract. Except, oddly enough, the company best in the position to comment on this – Cuadrilla Resources – was mysteriously uninvited.
As for the arguments about “earthquakes”. These are overdone, as Matt Ridley is among many to have noted.
It is now official: drilling for shale gas by fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can barely be felt.
The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused by a dam.
So too are the claims about water contamination:
What about groundwater contamination? This too is mostly hogwash. Since there is usually a mile of rock between aquifers and where the fracking happens, contamination from fracking is highly implausible. More than 25,000 wells have been sunk and there has only been a handful of potential contamination events, most of which proved to be natural. Of course, failure of the well casing or surface chemical spills can happen occasionally, as in any industry. But the chemicals used in fracking – less than 0.5 per cent of the solution used to displace the gas – are ordinary chemicals of the kind that you find under your kitchen sink: disinfectants, surfactants and the like.
No, as Matt Ridley goes on to argue in his must-read piece, the real opposition to shale gas is political not scientific. And nowhere is this politically motivated opposition stronger than in the renewables industry which rightly fears that if the truth about shale gas ever gets out – that it’s cheap, abundant AND more environmentally friendly than wind or solar – it will soon be put out of business.
So Cameron has a choice. Either he can continue to ally himself with the Lib Dems, DECC, big corporations and vested interests (such as the noisome Shell), green activist organisations such as the Guardian and Friends of the Earth, and all those rent seeking toerags taking advantage of the great wind and solar scams – thus guaranteeing massive hikes in energy prices, a continuation of the economic slump and the ongoing devastation of the British countryside with wind farms and the power lines needed to carry their erratic, unreliable, expensive energy.
Or he can take the option which will create real jobs, boost the British economy, lower energy prices, save the British countryside from destruction – and (for those who care about such nonsense) reduce Britain’s CO2 output to boot.
The last one may sound incredible but it’s already happened in the US, as Ridley notes:
The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science concluded in February that the surprise fall in America’s carbon emissions – by 7 per cent in 2009, probably more since – was caused largely by a switch from coal to shale gas. “A slight shift in the relative prices of coal and natural gas can result in a sharp drop in carbon emissions,” according to Professor Michael McElroy, who led the study.
Will Cameron seize this heaven-sent opportunity to boost his green credentials AND save the economy AND save the countryside AND win the hearts and minds of conservative and rural Britain AND make his Chancellor a very happy bunny?
Ideologically, I’d suggest not. Remember, this is the man who once famously said: “I’ve just been speaking to Al Gore and he really knows his stuff.”
But the thing you have to remember is that Cameron, above all, is a survivor with a knack of pulling things out of the hat at the last minute. This is the perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate his skill at government by essay crisis. I doubt anything quite so convenient will present itself ever again. Maybe Gove should have a word…
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