When did facts cease to underpin debate in the UK?
Have we really ‘had enough of experts’? British public and political opinion has a track record of denying the scientific consensus: climate deniers cherry picked sound bites to persuade politicians that there was no need to act to reduce our Greenhouse Gas emissions; activist groups mobilised local protestors to campaign against the supposed ‘risks’ from phone masts, fears about side effects of the MMR vaccine left thousands of children exposed to life threatening diseases. Now public acceptance of all three is entirely normalised. Perhaps it was just a matter of time?
Fracking is the latest victim. The greatest engineering and scientific experts in the UK, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, Independent Panel of Experts for the Scottish Government, Public Health England, Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management and the Committee on Climate Change have, independently, considered all the evidence and the scientific consensus is that it is possible to undertake fracking safely in the UK with proper regulation. It is surprising, therefore, how so many people, including respected politicians, are prepared, unashamedly and publicly, to ignore the evidence, to deny the facts and to continue to quote incorrect and misleading claims.
So its was pleasing to see the Labour Party this week accepting the ability of the on shore oil and gas industry to overcome technical problems – that’s what good engineers do - and that these are ‘not a good enough reason to ban fracking’.
And yet Labour plans to ban a whole industry anyway.
The consensus from experts in National Grid, UK Energy Research Centre, The Energy Technologies Institute and even Friends of the Earth, is that gas is essential in helping the UK meet its climate obligations (by replacing much more polluting coal) and absolutely has to be part of the energy mix until at least 2030.
But Labour plans to ban our onshore gas production despite the fact that it can save the UK from sending £10 million (and growing) per day out of the country to pay for this gas, thereby depriving British citizens of valuable tax revenue, services and jobs.
Just this week the first shipment of US gas for Ineos’ Grangemouth operation arrived in port. The chemical giant was forced to buy gas from the US because of dwindling North Sea gas supplies. Yet large home grown gas reserves sit beneath the Grangemouth site itself.
Labour asserts boldly that fracking ‘locks us into fossil fuels long after our country needs to have moved to clean energy’. This argument is fundamentally flawed and potentially destructive.
It is predicated on the assumption that the gas has to be burnt the old fashioned way and therefore will, necessarily, emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
This is incorrect and could indicate a worryingly backward looking approach. While renewable energy technologies, including wind and solar, can and should supply a substantial proportion of the UK’s electricity, it is naïve to believe that we can install enough turbines and panels and rewire the whole of the country to carry all the extra current around the country that we need heat the 23 million homes that currently use gas, not to mention charging our electric cars.
While we should aim for renewables and nuclear to keep the lights on, it is not the best way to keep us all warm and get us to work. We need a mix of energy resources.
Our home grown gas, as part of this mix, offers the UK a huge opportunity. Looking to the future, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) applied to natural gas (methane) can trap the offending carbon and give us the perfect zero carbon fuel – hydrogen.
Converting the UK’s gas central heating boilers and hobs to burn clean hydrogen moves our country into precisely the green energy scenario that Labour aspires to without the extreme costs to tax payers of renewing our National Grid and the costs to each home owner of scrapping their gas central heating and replacing it with electrical heating which then costs four times as much to run. The GMB union has expressly supported the onshore oil and gas industry precisely out of concern for the negative cost impact on their members of Labour’s plans to make us all electrify our heating systems.
We converted the UK from Town Gas to Natural Gas in 1960 and 1970s. We can do it again. The UK is unique in Europe in having this valuable opportunity.
Banning a whole industry when the consensus is that electrifying UK heat and transport is unachievably expensive is incomprehensible. But perhaps it’s just a matter of time.
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