Or rather, I’ve had a dream. Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again. No no. Scrub that. Wrong story. That was Daphne du Maurier in “Rebecca”.
Last night I had a dream that I woke up in 1800. The Industrial Revolution is in full swing, and the demand for coal to fuel iron and steel production, and industry, is growing fast. It’s nearly ninety years since Newcomen designed his steam engine, but only around thirty since James Watt improved it out of sight and made it a practical power source for factories and later for steam trains. Stevenson’s Rocket came in 1829.
It was back in 1709 that Abraham Darby first smelted iron with coal (it had been smelted with wood of charcoal for nearly 3000 years), and 1780 when his grandson built the famous Ironbridge in Shropshire.
New mines are being dug in many parts of England. In my dream I find myself close by a new mining site, and rather to my surprise I spot a motley group of demonstrators carrying banners, “No mining here”. “Mining causes subsidence and earthquakes”. “Mining causes pneumoconiosis”.
I seem to recognise one of the faces at the forefront of the crowd, before they are cleared away, rather roughly, by the local constabulary. Yes! Sure enough, it’s Caroline Lucas MP. You might think she has enough opportunity to argue her case in the House of Commons. But no. She has to take to the streets, and to civil disobedience.
Yet in 1800, she has a powerful case against coal. She doesn’t know it yet, but hundreds of thousands will die in the industry (at one stage up to 10,000 miners a year were estimated to be dying in China alone). Many others will suffer from debilitating diseases, notably pneumoconiosis, which will shorten their lives. Pit ponies will lead miserable lives in the darkness and go blind from coal dust (horses working in salt mines, on the other hand, generally lived healthier lives). Millions of men will spend their working lives in the darkness and the dust.
Mining would cause subsidence and earth tremors. Large tracts of land would be despoiled with industrial workings and pithead gear and slag tips — even larger tracts of land by open-cast operations. The air of our cities would be made foul by the smoke belched out from the factories. The “pea-soupers” made London a misery as recently as 1952 until finally the Clean Air Acts came in. The lives of millions of ordinary citizens, as well as miners, were blighted and abbreviated by lung diseases associated with smog.
So back in 1800, Caroline Lucas would have had a very powerful case indeed against coal. Yet on balance, and given the huge increases in wealth and living standards it entailed, few would wish that the Industrial Revolution hadn’t happened. Yes of course, if we’d known then what we know now, we’d have done it differently, and better (and probably smothered it at birth with over-regulation). But all in all, it was worth it.
(Disclaimer: Please note, I’m not knocking coal. It still has an important part to play in our energy mix, and these days we can source it and burn it much more cleanly).
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a new technology that offered all the benefits of coal, without the downsides? We can, and we have. Shale gas doesn’t require workers to spend their lives underground. It is far less visually intrusive and disruptive than coal mining — or wind farms. It may cause slight earth tremors, but less than coal mining. Properly regulated (as it will be in the UK) it doesn’t pose any risk to water supplies (it happens at great depth, way below the aquifers). It doesn’t release gas into the water supply. And it naturally burns much cleaner than coal.
No energy extraction technology is 100% safe. But shale gas is arguably safer than the others.
Wind farms on the other hand are a non-solution to a non-problem, but gas is a real and vital part of our energy mix, and there are huge advantages in sourcing it locally rather than from expensive foreign sources like Russia.
So yes. I have a dream. I have a dream of a Britain where the lights stay on, where energy is affordable and fuel poverty forgotten. Where British industry stays competitive. Where new jobs are created not only in the gas industry, but in all those other industries that depend on energy. Where Treasury revenues are boosted by the wealth beneath our feet. Where our balance of payments is transformed by indigenous gas. Where our children and grandchildren can look forward to prosperity we dared not hope for ten years ago. That’s what UKIP wants. And it’s what Caroline Lucas wants to stop.