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Charles Moore: Fracking – Industry Made Sussex, And I Hope It Will Again

Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph

At last, Church and State are noticing that fanatics have been steering the fracking debate in the wrong direction

Drilling equipment in Balcombe: Organisations like the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are just as self-interested, and a lot more politically motivated, than an energy company
Drilling equipment in Balcombe: Organisations like the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are just as self-interested, and a lot more politically motivated, than an energy company Photo: Getty Images
Greetings from so-far “frack-free Sussex”. Greetings, indeed, from one of those rectories that, according to an ill-timed jest by the Business Minister Michael Fallon, are about to have the thickness of their walls tested by the onset of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in search of shale gas.

In these parts, I can report, all is calm. London-based journalists with hazy geography do not realise that Sussex stretches nearly 100 miles, so they keep ringing me up to ask for my reaction from the centre of protest.

That is Balcombe, where activists from outside the area have succeeded in making Cuadrilla, the drilling company, “scale back” its operations over the next fortnight. Balcombe is far away in West Sussex. We are in East Sussex: “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.” So my response to the standard “How does it feel?” media question is similar to that of someone in Romford being asked about a third runway at Heathrow.

What is true, however, is that much of Sussex, including Balcombe and us, forms part of what geologists call the Weald Basin. We have a lot of shale. We probably have a lot of shale gas (and, by extension, of shale oil too).

The sleepy British are at last waking up to the fact that, over the past decade, the shale gas industry in the United States has multiplied 10 times. America is on the point of becoming the largest natural gas producer in the world, with shale oil as the next, even bigger thing. Its energy costs are now only a third of ours. Might it not be an idea for us to find out what we’ve got?

It turns out that the Bowland Shale in Yorkshire and Lancashire may be even bigger than the Marcellus, the biggest field in the United States. The opportunity is even greater than that of North Sea oil in the 1960s and 1970s. Quite possibly, the Weald Basin is also very rich. Hence Cuadrilla’s drilling.

The point of Mr Fallon’s joke was that the South East is known for its Nimbys. We stand accused of accepting the fruits of economic growth in our pension pots and our house values, but wanting the dirty bits to happen somewhere else. So, it is assumed, we shall all oppose fracking.

There is some truth in the caricature. Few people positively want industrial processes right under their residential noses. The South East, being quite crowded by rural standards, is self-protective. But I find that most people’s minds are not made up. They could quite easily come down in favour of shale, provided one or two things happen.

When considering these arguments, I always remind myself that I was brought up (about seven miles from where I live now) in a mining community. The biggest employer of the fathers at my village school was British Gypsum. It owned two serious gypsum mines (one of which is still functioning) nearby. They ran several miles underground, with lorries coming and going and a sort of pulley system carrying the product out of the mines and across the countryside. I never remember anyone suggesting that this industry was destroying our idyll. If anyone had said that the mines should be closed down because of environmental damage, he or she would have been thought mad.

All sorts of potentially unpleasant industrial activity – including oil wells in Dorset and the South Downs – go on in rural areas. If rubbish tips and sewage farms are well soundproofed and not too visible, they are accepted. Even pylons, which are genuinely, shockingly intrusive, do not attract much notice. The difference from the past, as in so many areas of life today, lies in the question of who gets to the microphone first. If you Google “fracking”, the top entry is posted by Friends of the Earth (FoE). The third is from a site called No entry on the first page of Google is pro-fracking.

When a company comes along to your village and says it wants to drill, who is available to give you information? In a public culture in which phrases like “saving the planet” and “the precautionary principle” are literally part of school curriculums, is it surprising that people are susceptible to propaganda that deploys such words?

Everyone can see that a drilling company has a bias on the subject. Fewer people are aware that organisations like FoE and Greenpeace are just as self-interested, and a lot more politically motivated. The BBC never subjects them to a grilling. Their principles are now enshrined in legislation both here and in the EU. They have a government department – Energy and Climate Change – virtually framed in their image. Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat secretary of state, obliged them by ordering a year’s moratorium on fracking. Green representatives have almost automatic right of access to key European meetings, and a practised skill at spinning out regulatory delay. Within the machinery of government, only the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, has pushed vigorously against the lobbyists from the start.

Now, at last, David Cameron has come out for fracking; but because he said, when he began three years ago, that he wanted his to be “the greenest government ever”, he has hobbled himself in questioning the motives of his opponents on this subject.

The root of the Greens’ objection to fracking is not that they believe it cannot work, but that they fear that it can. If we can produce a cheap, low-carbon, plentiful fossil fuel, that’s the end of renewables. Wind power is, among other things, a way of increasing Western energy dependence on others, because it is incapable of meeting our needs. If I were President Putin, wanting to keep my fossil-fuel power over the West, and therefore to squash indigenous shale production, I would be funding our green lobbies as hard as I could.

At Balcombe, the protests are being driven by outsiders, Occupy movement types, not by locals. This mirrors what happens all over the country. Non-green people who want more jobs, cheaper fuel prices and so on, are numerous, but not noisy. Who will speak for them? What public agency will go through all the facts on the subject, showing, for instance, that there is no recorded example of mobile groundwater ever having been polluted by fracking anywhere? Above all, who will put the essential political, economic and, therefore, moral case?

At present, there is a strange disconnect. You often hear concerned persons complaining about people who live in “fuel poverty” – a phrase that has a legal definition. Yet these same people do not speak up for forms of energy production which could abolish that poverty within a few years.

A few days ago, the Diocese of Blackburn, which includes some of the Bowland Shale, put out a leaflet warning against fracking, which stems, it says, “from a sincere conviction to take seriously the challenges of caring for God’s fragile creation”. In the 1980s, Anglican bishops, especially in the North, attacked the Thatcher government for tearing the heart out of communities by closing coal mines. Today, when the same communities could be revived by the profits of much less polluting hydrocarbons, Church spokesmen condemn the very idea.

To my pleased surprise, however, last night there was an ecclesiastical volte-face. As we report elsewhere, the Church of England, galvanised I strongly suspect, by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, declared that scares against fracking are like those about MMR. It even made the right point about fuel poverty. At last, people are beginning to ask the right questions about who benefits.

This week I had an interesting talk with Chris Wright. He is the American engineer who, with his colleagues, invented the “slick water” method of fracking that transformed rather crude technology into something really big (and much safer). When he came to England recently, he said, he was saddened by the number of derelict industries he saw in places like Liverpool. In his view, low-cost natural gas is the key to successful manufacture. Shale gas gives such places their chance.

He was also bewildered by the environmental hostility to fracking compared with the indulgence of wind farms. His industry, he told me, produces “on four hectares as much energy as the entire British wind industry”. Yet there are more than 3,000 wind farms putting up their three fingers to “God’s fragile creation”, visible from every high hill in the entire United Kingdom.

Unusually for a businessman, Chris Wright does not believe in lying low. “You can’t win the debate when one side is quiet,” he says.

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