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Moment that mattered: Shale gas found under Blackpool

A team of artists create a record breaking sand sculpture on Blackpool Beach. The sculpture is being created to celebrate the premiere of Monsters Inc on the Disney Channel.

“I think this is extraordinarily big news for the UK. Energy company Cuadrilla has announced it thinks the field under Blackpool is 200 trillion cubic feet – half the size of the Marcellus [the huge field in Pennsylvania, known as ‘The Beast in the East’], and bigger than anything in the North Sea. It could keep Britain going for several decades, even at a five to ten per cent recovery rate.

Sadly there is a massive vested interest against shale gas. The Russians hate it, [Russian energy company] Gazprom doesn’t want it to happen because it wants to have our goolies in a vice; Iran doesn’t like it, Big Coal doesn’t want it, Big Nuclear doesn’t like it because it was just getting its act together to get a whole new programme of nuclear reactors and, above all, Big Green doesn’t like it because the renewables industry was relying on gas prices going ever upwards, so they would eventually get so expensive that wind turbines would seem more affordable.

The DECC [Department of Energy and Climate Change] was apparently stuffed to the gunnels by Ed Miliband with eco-nuts, and everything I’ve seen from them is that they think CC is much more important than E. The government should be climbing off its renewables bandwagon as fast as it can. It needs to unravel the policies that it has got into whereby it is guaranteeing income to rich people from poor people for the installation of wind, solar and biomass, none of which is going to make any sense in terms of supplying energy or save much carbon but which will distort the economy enormously. We’re now reaching the point where the average household will be in fuel poverty –  meaning that ten per cent of their income goes on energy bills – by 2015, which is a terrifying thought.

It is true that drilling holes to extract shale gas is an environmentally intrusive thing to do to, but I spent a couple
of days in Pennsylvania talking to people and visiting sites and I was amazed how unintrusive it is compared with wind farms. I’ve done a rough calculation that in the first ten years of its life a shale gas well produces about the same amount of energy as eight wind turbines – that’s given the amount by which the wind blows and the rate by which you convert the gas into electricity. Which would you rather have, a garage-sized object hidden behind a hedge for ten years, or eight things twice the height of Nelson’s column whacking eagles in half and decompressing the lungs of bats? Not to mention the huge amounts of steel and concrete they require, plus quite a lot of neodymium, a rare metal mined in Mongolia and used in turbine magnets, and whose by-product when processed is toxic radioactive tailings.

“We’re now reaching the point where the average household will be in fuel poverty by 2015, which
is a terrifying thought”

Environmentalists seem to think that anything involving burning is dirty and anything not involving burning is clean. If you make sensible assumptions in your studies, however, you realise that because methane [the main constituent of shale gas] is CH4, its hydrogen to carbon ratio is about six times better than that of coal, which is good because noone is objecting to burnt hydrogen – water. Not only that, but if you generate electricity from coal you struggle to get 40 per cent efficiency, but if you generate it from gas with combined cycle turbines you’re in the region for a new build now of 58-59 per cent – so much more efficient. The evidence I’ve seen suggests that the greenhouse impact of shale gas is much less than coal.

Some people worry about earthquakes. There was a minor earthquake in the Blackpool area a few months ago: it might well have been something to do with the drilling and fracking, but it was so minor, it was less than a bus going past on a nearby road in terms of the vibrations experienced. Those kind of earthquakes happen all the time and never seem to do any real damage.

Some of the environmental objections to shale gas are genuine – you do need to worry about underwater contamination, waste water disposal and potentially about gas leaking into water supplies, but it is worth noting that something like 12 American states have experienced shale gas drilling and their regulators have all said in writing that they have no cases of contamination of water supplies by fracking fluid.

I am worried that the UK might get left behind on shale gas. I think GM crops offer a close analogy because we turned our back on a new technology, and an industry in which Britain was a leader went abroad. If you go to the John Innes Centre in Norwich you see these ghost labs all set up for GM crop work which basically got bailed out on: it was a classic case of the principle that the new is always seen to be bad.

But what if the new is better than the old even if it’s not perfect? I am worried that the environmental movement learned from GM crops that you can stop a technology in its tracks if you establish your version of the story early enough, and that they are essentially trying to do the same with shale gas. There is a risk of us turning our back on new technology, and then waking up in 20 years to find we’ve got no chemical industry on Teesside and it’s all gone to the Gulf of Mexico where gas is cheap.”

Matt Ridley is the author of ‘The Rational Optimist’

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