Over the last couple of years, there has been much talk of disinformation and misinformation, and much thought lent to the knotty question of who you can trust to relay the facts in unbiased fashion. These are all issues that we have to consider when looking at Zac Goldsmith’s latest utterances.
The noble lord took to Twitter yesterday to try to counter a group of Conservative MPs who are demanding that the UK start exploiting its abundant shale gas resources so as to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis. In the process, he ended up sounding more like something from the murkier corners of the green movement, which of course is what he was before becoming a minister of the crown.
Take, for example, his claim about how many wells we’d need:
…to replace half the gas we import, we’d likely need around 6,000 new wells
Hmm. The first thing to notice is that he’s talking “wells” when you really want to understand how many pads would be required. In Pennsylvania, 25 wells per pad is common, and pads with 40 wells are not far away. So even if Goldsmith is right (he isn’t), we might only be talking about 150 pads, occupying 1000 acres. Compare this to the minister’s enthusiasm for taking 150,000 acres out of agricultural production to cover it in solar panels.
When Cuadrilla announced the results of their test fracking, they said they were expecting initial flow rates of up to 200,000 cubic metres per day. Over a year, a 25-well pad would produce 1.8 billion cubic metres (bcm). Our net imports of gas are under 40 bcm, so to replace half, we’d only need around 11 pads, occupying around 80 acres. Now of course, the initial flow rates decline rapidly, but even if we needed 11 new pads every year, it would still take nearly two millennia to use as much land as Lord Goldsmith wants to industrialise in the first phase of the expansion of solar power. Moreover, that industrialisation will be permanent.
Next consider Lord Goldsmith’s take on the impact of fracking on communities
…all the associated industrial equipment & endless movements of trucks ferrying toxic chemicals & wastewater to & from sites.”
This is a remarkable thing for a minister in Defra to say, because Defra is reponsible for the Environment Agency, which licenses fracking chemicals. Lord Goldsmith is, in essence saying that staff in his department have been allowing people to poison the land. Fortunately, he is not telling the truth. As Tim Worstall points out in his new NZW paper on UK shale gas, the chemicals licensed are all extraordinarily innocuous. It is simple disinformation to suggest otherwise.
Moreover, as well as not actually carrying “toxic chemicals”, the trucks don’t move endlessly either. Once a well is drilled and fracked it just sits there, absolutely silently, while the gas seeps out. You might need to refrack occasionally, but in essence the industrial operations are time-limited. Unlike those solar panels, which will permanently desecrate this (formerly) green and pleasant land.
Lord Goldsmith is famously wealthy, and enjoys an almost complete disconnect with the concerns of ordinary people. He will lose no sleep worrying if there is enough money in the kitty to pay the energy bill. And being in the Lords, the fact that these issues are of very great concern to voters will not bother him either. But Conservative MPs will know that the pain being felt is real and will soon be much worse. They will certainly be wondering if it is wise for the Prime Minister to latch onto Lord Goldsmith’s every dubiously sourced claim, as he apparently does.