The coal strike of 1984/85 was a defining moment for the British trade union movement, and for the government of the day. Much of the understandable hurt and resentment in the mining communities affected remains to this day, and although in economic terms the outcome was both necessary and inevitable, at the time the government attracted huge opprobrium.
We shouldn’t forget that the UK’s Industrial Revolution a couple of centuries ago was built on coal. Without it, Britain might today be an insignificant agrarian country on the North-West fringes of Europe. It was that important. It resulted in wealth and economic success on a scale previously unimaginable. And despite the social upheaval of the Industrial Revolution, it set the stage for steady progress in living standards which has continued (with the occasional hiccup) until the present day.
But the coal industry came with major downsides. It had a devastating impact on the landscape. For many years it resulted in severe atmospheric pollution. It even caused minor earth tremors. It required huge shafts, big enough to carry large lifts, to be dug down through the level of the water table, with potential for water pollution. It required tens of thousands of men to spend their working lives deep underground, more or less in darkness, breathing foul air and coal-dust. Thousands died horrifically in accidents. Tens of thousands ended up with debilitating and eventually lethal lung diseases. Yet the workers valued their jobs; they passed them on to their sons; they fought tooth and nail to protect them when the pits eventually became uneconomic.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some new energy extraction technology came along, here in Britain, which offered the same sort of economic benefits as coal, but with much less visual intrusion and damage to landscape? One that created jobs, but didn’t require workers to spend their working lives down the pit, or risk suffering from foul lung diseases? A fuel that burned much more cleanly than coal?
Of course we have such a technology. Unconventional gas. Fracking. So it’s a crying shame that an unholy alliance of “green” NGOs (some financed by our taxes through the EU), together with conventional gas producers like Russia’s Gazprom, threaten this amazing opportunity to develop our economy, to achieve security of supply, and to provide jobs for our children and grandchildren. Jobs not just in the gas industry, but in all the other industries that will prosper as a result of indigenous gas.
The worries of local residents in Balcombe and elsewhere are legitimate (rather more legitimate than the professional agitators who have joined the protests). But they are misplaced. They are based on deliberately mendacious propaganda. And they risk doing huge damage to our country’s economic prospects.
I’ve met people who simply parrot the wild accusations from the propaganda film “Gasland”. I’ve been told that fracking will devastate Britain. I’ve been told that no one in America can get potable water out of the tap any more — they all have to drink bottled water. I think my American friends might be surprised by this news. It really is nonsense, yet these wild stories threaten what is probably Britain’s greatest economic opportunity since North Sea Oil, if not since coal.
I’ve also met people who tell me very authoritatively that “No matter how much shale gas we discover, the prices won’t come down”. But the truth is that until we do more exploration, and drill a few test wells, we just don’t know how the economics will work out. Maybe prices will come down, maybe not. They’ve certainly come down dramatically in the USA.
What commercial shale gas would do, regardless of price, is cut our dependence on imported fuel. It would increase our energy security. It would transform our balance of payments. It would pay for our old people’s pensions and our young people’s education. We can say pretty much for sure that our taxes will be lower, and our energy less expensive, with shale gas than without. These are massive benefits.
So let’s consider shale against coal. Coal needs big surface sites. Pithead equipment. Waste mountains. And even more visual/landscape intrusion with open-cast. A shale well needs drilling equipment for two or three months — but after that, the well-head is little more intrusive than a garden shed. Certainly a great deal preferable to a wind turbine, visible for miles. Both coal and shale require drilling down through aquifer levels (as does geo-thermal, which the Greens love). But while the coal shaft may be ten feet across, the gas bore-hole may be a mere six inches. Fracking has gone on in the US for many decades, with no evidence of significant water pollution. And the technology and regulation are getting better all the time.
Fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes. It may result in minor tremors, comparable to natural back-ground seismic activity. Or comparable to the tremors caused by coal mining. And the workers work on the surface, not a thousand feet down. This is a dramatically healthier industry. Gas is also very much cleaner than coal and (if it matters to you) produces much less CO2.
It’s time for former miners and mining communities to demand fracking to replace lost mining. All the benefits of coal, very few of the downsides. And it’s time for politicians to speak up, to lead public opinion, not simply to jump on the next protest band-wagon.
Some UKIP members ask me how we can be against wind farms yet not against fracking. The answer is simple. Wind farms are a non-solution to a non-problem, a vast waste of money that does huge damage to our economy. Shale gas is a fantastic opportunity which can potentially transform our economy and ensure jobs for future generations. It would be wholly irresponsible to ignore it.