Monthly Archives: January 2014

Wakefield Council Opposes HS2

Wakefield Council Opposes HS2.

More on fracking – or not fracking, as the case may be

This blog is really in response to a comment put up by Kathleen Hassall on my blog “To frack or not to frack”. Firstly, however, I would like to thank her for taking so much trouble and for providing a very thought provoking and reasoned argument – an argument with which I have a good deal of sympathy.

Looking back over the last fifty years or so, I begin to see a common thread in much of my life – the need to link events with the cause of those events: causation, in a word. One of the first stories I filed which has a real resonance today was a story about an unexpected flood. What I wanted to know (and failed to establish) was why it happened. Why was the farmland as far as the eye could see under water? Nobody seemed to have a reasonable answer although quite a few were entirely happy with the one they gave me.

In order to establish the level of risks associated with fracking we have to look at what causes what. As I see it there are two dangers here.

The first is finding what was already there but not noticed – and finding it because there is a “cause” looking for “events”. This is not for one half of a second to suggest that none of those new finds are genuine but one cannot totally ignore the possibility that findings point to some event that has a completely different cause. Let me give an example: water depletion in areas where there is fracking springs to mind. There are many reasons for water depletion – most of them being caused by carrying out unsustainable development or agri/horticulture but that is another story – and one can well understand that if this happens near to an area of fracking it is rational and reasonable to blame the fracking. This does not mean that fracking is innocent but more evidence is needed to determine the true causation.

The other thing – and Kathleen Hassall rightly points this out in her comment – is that it is nigh on impossible to obtain information from a source which one can trust. This is one of the reasons why I avoided putting many links up on the first blog: most of the ones I looked at struck me as being suspect one way or another. Incidentally, while we are on the subject, the reasons I chose the very odd and anonymous anti-fracking web site were that it receives countless “hits” (it headed the list of sites that came up on various search engines) and it gave me the headings I wanted. Apart from that it was not really worth a second glance.

So where does that leave us? Well, the honest answer is “very puzzled”.

Even the scientific reports which one would consider should be trustworthy may not be all they seem. Now for a bit of academic treason. Over the years I have interviewed a number of academics and have had a few as quite close friends. There is an absolute need to produce good publications to advance in the academic world: publications which have been approved by peer reviews. It is good if such publications can deal with something of general interest (such as fracking) which will attract a wide audience. In general terms peer reviewers are lenient towards publications which do not attack the reviewer’s position (in which case the review may well be rabid). So I suggest that we cannot entirely trust such publications – especially if we look back at those that have since been demonstrated to be entirely wrong.

Having said that, the immediate rebuttal of the article published by the Food and Environment Reporting Network by the spokesman for Energy in Depth is disturbing: Kathleen Hassall rightly condemns it.

She opens one of her paragraphs with the following: “Again and again, as I struggle to see all sides of this issue, I find holes cut out of the picture – and the scissors seem to bear the prints of the shale gas industry.” I am inclined to agree with that but then I look at those who argue against fracking and what do I see? I find holes cut out of the picture – and the scissors seem to bear the prints of the protesters.

What I fear here, in the UK, is that politicians chasing solutions to the energy needs of the nation will pass laws which reduce the regulation and control of those carrying out fracking operations. What little influence I have will be used to seek assurances that problems will be honestly and transparently reported and that all operators will be subject to constant close scrutiny. I think that is a reasonable price for them to pay for the right to frack.

Continuing to work through Kathleen Hassall’s comments brings us to the problems associated with “out of court settlements”. Apart from the obvious (that we do not know any details) is that it is often cheaper for a company to settle something out of court than it is to get involved in costly and time consuming actions. Even our own revenue service will “agree” a large corporation’s tax liability rather than pursue a larger claim through the courts because it is uneconomical so to do (and they are supposed to be on the side of the tax payers). This does not mean that all allegations are false but simply that such settlements tell us nothing of value.

Then there is the question of who benefits from the claims (for and against) which are deluging the planet (and to which, I suppose, I am adding). That is of vital importance and half the time it is almost impossible to know.

So it is that I come down somewhere in the middle. I do not feel we should give fracking a clean bill of health and allow it wherever there is shale gas. I do not feel we should disallow it entirely. Each and every operation should be judged on its merits taking into consideration the geology of the area, the availability of sufficient water, a known safe place for the disposal of contaminated water, suitable access for site traffic and a suitable (and guaranteed) plan for the reinstatement of the site. On that basis, only sites which can meet these reasonable requirements would obtain permission (you might even say that the default position would be refusal). The reinstatement part is vital to avoid needless damage to our countryside. It is difficult to see how it can be assured but I leave that problem for someone better qualified than I am to find a solution.

There will be mistakes: there are always mistakes. But I do think that I agree with the CPRE’s position which is:-

We all have a role to play to reduce our energy consumption but we are realistic and recognise there are no easy solutions to our energy mix if we are to meet our current needs and allow for fuel security in the long-term.

Although shale gas exploitation could reduce the use of more damaging resources such as coal we must also continue to move towards a cleaner, more renewable mix.

Fracking is not a permanent fixture on the landscape so there could also be less damaging visual impacts than some other forms of extraction. The potential repercussions in some areas of the countryside however would still make fracking entirely inappropriate, which is why careful consultation and engagement with communities is essential to determine possible sites.

Lastly I would like to mention that I believe quite strongly that we in the UK should listen to what is happening in the US because they sometimes have something quite important to tell us so I hope that we shall see more trans-Atlantic comments in the future. And, yes, it might be good if sometimes the US listened to the UK but that is a different subject.

Liberal – illiberal

Within the comments on the Times on Line, I was asked a question: “you often use the words liberal and illiberal . . . . please define a liberal law. Perhaps you would prefer the perfect liberal state of having no laws . . just rely on the goodness of mankind.”

For what it is worth, I put up the following answer. If you have the energy, I would really like it if you could leave a comment telling me how you would define “a liberal law” assuming that you believe in the idea of such a thing. Anyway, here are my thoughts:-

How long have you got? Before I start (and I will keep it as short as I can) I cannot see the logic that links your two sentences.

Hopefully you are not interested in the dictionary definitions but rather the way they are used in political comments but, just for the record, the first definition of “liberal” is usually: willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas. It follows that illiberal is being unwilling so to respect or accept . . .

When commenting, however, I use liberal to mean “I have no problem with what people think or what they do with the caveat that it does no harm to any other person or persons.” I would base statute law on that – but that is not enough to keep the wheels of society turning which is why we evolved Common Law here in the UK. We are beginning to lose that and to replace matters that were handled under common law using statutes that are so often so badly worded as to attract unexpected consequences the way a magnet attracts iron filings.

So to define a liberal law is not actually as simple as it seems: if I make a law to protect you from an action by someone else I am denying that other person the freedom to carry out that action. Getting the balance right is not easy. In some things there are few arguments: we are all happy to deny the murderer the freedom to commit murder. In others it is more complex: read the comments on the ToL when there is a discussion on same sex marriage.

Returning to the subject in hand: most reasonable men would agree that some of the medieval practices that have been brought into this country by people brought up in other cultures should not be allowed in a civilised country so please do not go away with the idea that a liberal person is happy to rely on the goodness of man: not all men are good.


To frack or not to frack – that is the question

This subject has moved from being one of rational debate to being symbolic and thus driven by emotions. It is difficult to see how this has come about: we all need power (although there is an excellent argument that suggests that we need to change our ways so as to consume less far less, than we do at present). We all know that power means using some form of the resources available to us and that our fossil resources are finite. Quite rightly we have tried to look at alternative ways of generating power using “renewables”: wind, solar and wave power. These are steps in the right direction but the first two are unreliable (the wind does not always blow – it gets dark) and the third is proving far harder than we once thought. We need more time in which to solve these problems and need to decide how to bridge that gap.

The use of shale gas is one obvious way to bridge that gap, so what is the problem? I suppose the answer is “fear” – a combination of genuine concern for the environment (good) and nimbyism (bad but understandable). I have no intention of considering the second reason: it is not in my nature to take on moral or philosophical challenges about the balances between the public good and the private individual.

In the environment, I include the well being of humans as we are a part of that environment. However, before we look at what we know about fracking in terms of what can go wrong and how to reduce the risks, we have to accept that every enterprise carried risks – even making a cup of tea. I cannot accept the argument that we should refuse to carry out something unless it can be declared “risk free”. Such a demand lacks any measure of intellectual credibility. Meanwhile there remains a shadow over fracking – as with every other human activity: unexpected events, consequences, call them what you will. By their very nature it is impossible to take them into consideration so the very best we can do (and should do) is to use our intellects to reveal as many possible problems as we can and to see whether they may be solved. It is the ones for which no credible solution can be found that should be used to decide the answer to our question.

Meanwhile, because of the emotions surrounding fracking, the world is awash with rumours about eventualities (with little or no basis in science) and the first thing to do is to look at those and see which have any merit. Here are the views expressed on the web site of someone called “dangers of fracking“. In this part I add my first thoughts (for what they are worth).

Site Traffic

“Each gas well requires an average of 400 tanker trucks to carry water and supplies to and from the site.”

First thoughts. What size of tanker? Over what time scale (per hour, day, week, month)?

Water Usage

“It takes 1-8 million gallons of water to complete each fracturing job.”

First thoughts. 1 to 8 is a pretty wide range. What is the definition of a “fracturing job”? Are we talking about getting the thing operational or the whole life span of the well?


The water brought in is mixed with sand and chemicals to create fracking fluid. Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing.”

First thoughts. The world is full of sand and we seem to manage it without difficulty, it must be the chemicals that concern us. We need to know what chemicals are used in fracking.

Fracking Chemicals

“Up to 600 chemicals are used in fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins such as ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, mercury, methanol, and uranium.

First thoughts. “Up to” always makes me worry. I say, “I walk up to thirty-four miles a day.” Once, when I was in my early twenties, I walked thirty-four miles so my statement is true in all respects but it gives a completely false impression as, to my shame, my average daily mileage over my life span is probably less than one of those miles. So where does that 600 come from? We need to find out.


“During this process, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the system and contaminate nearby groundwater. Methane concentrations are 17 x higher in drinking-water wells near fracturing sites than in normal wells.”

First thoughts. If this is true we have a problem so we need to look into this one vary carefully. Seventeen times higher does seem rather a specific figure, it would be interesting to see where they got that.

Drinking Water

“Contaminated well water is used for drinking water for nearby cities and towns. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination next to areas of gas drilling as well as cases of sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.”

First thoughts. Well, this leads on but over a thousand cases can’t have happened without someone doing something about them. We shall have to see what investigations resulted and what was revealed.


“The waste fluid is left in open air pits to evaporate, releasing harmful volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone. In the end, hydraulic fracking (in the US) produces approximately 300,000 barrels of natural gas a day, but at the price of numerous environmental, safety, and health hazards.”

First thoughts. Well, this certainly gives us the case against but nothing at all in the way of verifiable facts.

* * * * *

Faced with the above, the next thing to do is to try and establish some facts but we are, as always, worried that everything we read is tainted: everybody seems to have an ax to grind. First, though, let mew get my ax out of the way. I am a life member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England and I really, really do not want to see further despoliation of our countryside. Here is the official CPRE view with which I agree.

We all have a role to play to reduce our energy consumption but we are realistic and recognise there are no easy solutions to our energy mix if we are to meet our current needs and allow for fuel security in the long-term.

Although shale gas exploitation could reduce the use of more damaging resources such as coal we must also continue to move towards a cleaner, more renewable mix.

Fracking is not a permanent fixture on the landscape so there could also be less damaging visual impacts than some other forms of extraction. The potential repercussions in some areas of the countryside however would still make fracking entirely inappropriate, which is why careful consultation and engagement with communities is essential to determine possible sites.

You may wish to click here to see the full text.

Now for a more detailed look at some of the issues raised above.

Water Contamination

Right, now back to business. Obviously the big one is water contamination so let’s start there. Yes, there have been quite a few cases of water contamination in various parts of the US. Associated Press carried out an extensive report a week or so ago. Here are a few extracts (click here to see full text).

Pennsylvania has confirmed at least 106 water-well contamination cases since 2005, out of more than 5,000 new wells. There were five confirmed cases of water-well contamination in the first nine months of 2012, 18 in all of 2011 and 29 in 2010. The Environmental Department said more complete data may be available in several months.

Ohio had 37 complaints in 2010 and no confirmed contamination of water supplies; 54 complaints in 2011 and two confirmed cases of contamination; 59 complaints in 2012 and two confirmed contaminations; and 40 complaints for the first 11 months of 2013, with two confirmed contaminations and 14 still under investigation, Department of Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said in an email. None of the six confirmed cases of contamination was related to fracking, Bruce said.

West Virginia has had about 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells over the past four years, and in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action, officials said.

A Texas spreadsheet contains more than 2,000 complaints, and 62 of those allege possible well-water contamination from oil and gas activity, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees drilling. Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination in the past 10 years, she said.

Now, I don’t know what you think about that but I feel this suggests that, as you would expect, water will become contaminated and in some cases the work associated with fracking is to blame and that it is right and proper that when this happens those doing the fracking are required to take the appropriate remedial action.

Why do I feel reasonably happy? Well, let’s look at the figures and please accept that this is not a truly accurate way of looking at the problem but is probably as near as we can get without making it a life time project.

In Pennsylvania, 106 reports of contamination of which 52 were confirmed associated with fracking at over 5,000 wells or, if you like percentages, 2.12% of wells were suspect and 1.04% were proved to be contaminated. These figures, of course, assume that there are exactly 5,000 wells so the true percentages are even lower.

We can’t get similar figures for the other three states but we can note two very important sentences.

“. . . in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action”

“Texas regulators haven’t confirmed a single case of drilling-related water-well contamination . . .”

These are important because the first suggests that when action is needed, action is taken whilst the second reminds us that not all contamination is caused by fracking.

Disposal of Waste Water

This is a problem – but disposing of waste water in old dis-used wells as happens in places such as Ohio does not seem to create the earthquakes that have been reported. This rumour started because a researcher at Columbia University identified that there had been 167 earthquakes in Youngstown (Ohio) during the first year of fracking but that there had been none recorded before that. Both statements are true (the results were published in the Journal of Geophysical Research). Also true is the fact that these were detected using extremely sensitive instruments which had not been used before and, or so it seems, none of them were noticed by any other means. The only reports of a person claiming to have felt one of these earthquakes which were then investigated indicate that the earthquakes people felt were not detected by the seismometers being used in the laboratory. So, define “earthquake”.

Having said that there is evidence that in some places waste water has seeped through fissures in rocks deep below the ground and contaminated the ground water.

If you try to find out what us happening by using Google, you will be offered numerous anti-fracking sites – simply because they are the most popular. That does not mean that enough attention is being given to considering the disposal of waste water. Far from it. Most scientific journals suggest that this is the biggest problem surrounding fracking but those presently available are already out of date. I am still trying to find the latest position on this subject which, in my book, is the real reason why we need to look at each situation with great care. Fracking should be allowed only if it can be demonstrated that all the waste water generated can be dealt with safely. That’s quite a big “if”.

The Chemicals

Probably the sanest source for looking at the chemistry is FracFocus’s site.

One quote that might help to put matters into perspective is: “Multiple names for the same chemical can also leave you with the impression that there are more chemicals than actually exist.” You may remember that one of the chemicals mentioned above was ethylene glycol. Well, this is probably better known to you as anti-freeze (and that is what it is used for).

How unbiased is FracFocus? Judge for yourself – it is, of course, in the US. “FracFocus is the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry. FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, two organizations whose missions both revolve around conservation and environmental protection.”

This is why I think it is the best place to look but I might be wrong. An aside: this site registers sites in the US and the total is presently 68,887.

Site Traffic

As far as I can establish, this is often a problem during the development of the site (as it is with building a house) but not usually thereafter – where, in the US, no provision as such has been made to ameliorate traffic nuisance it is because there is little need and where there is a need action is taken. I assume it would be the same here.

My Conclusions

It is a great pity that we have allowed society to become so dependent on power but, as they say, this is where we are. Shutting down old coal fired generation plants has created a gap in production and made us heavily dependent on imports of all fuels: and dithering over how we should go forward has made the problem worse. Somehow we have to fill the gap. There are no solutions that are ideal but, with the various caveats suggested above, it would seem that fracking is the best way to do that.

However, that is all it should be: a stop gap. We have to find a better long term solution. My guess is that this should be the sum of thousands of micro-solutions rather than one or two macro-solutions but that is another story.

Welfare and immigration

Once again, Ken Clarke ruffles a few feathers by saying it as he sees it. In once sense I agree with him that immigration has a history of being good for the country rather than the reverse. However, someone (was it Milton Friedman?) said that you can choose between unlimited immigration or universal welfare but both would bankrupt the country. I put a comment to that effect (without quoting my source as I am not certain I am crediting the right person).  This received the following response from Michael Mouse:

Actually you probably can’t have either without bankrupting the country.

Unrestricted immigration is catastrophic in all sorts of ways, while a benefit system based on the idea of “need”, rather than contribution is  packed with peverse incentives to bad and reckless behaviour. There is no more reason to behave prudently if you will be rewarded for folly than there is to drive carefully if you do not pay for your own insurance, it destroys personal responsibility.

This all makes a great deal of sense but is he right? Let me say straight away that (as always, sadly) I’m not sure.

The problem with contribution based welfare is that the ones that really need it (in my view) are the ones who will never be able to pay any contributions. They are those who are in the miserable position of being born with a serious disability or who contract an incurable and disabling disease in childhood. The only way to deal with these is because they have a real need and we, as a society, feel that they should be treated in a compassionate way rather than left on a handy hill top.

But if there is one group that has a need that we are willing to meet, would we (should we) fail to meet the needs of others just because they do not have the right number of premium payments?

So I would postulate that the problem is in determining need and when need is found deciding on the correct social response in that particular case. This is difficult to organise, open to abuse and, let’s face it, can be humiliating. The alternative is that we go broke – here I feel Michael is right. Perhaps the humiliation is the price we have to pay to ensure that those in genuine need get it but the process is sufficiently rigorous to avoid Micheal’s “peverse incentives to bad and reckless behaviour.”

There would be bad cases. There are always bad cases. We must always remember that bad cases make bad law – as has been demonstrated on many occasions in the past.

Oh, a final thought. If someone in this country is a foreign national, then it would be reasonable to say that their only “need” would be a free ticket back to their home country (unless they were political refugees, of course). Would the EU wear that one? I doubt it.

Public backing for EU crashes in wake of eurozone crisis | The World

Dr Alf's Blog

This is a powerful article from the FT, citing how public backing for the EU has plummeted after the Euro crisis. It’s a MUST READ. Check it out!

Public backing for EU crashes in wake of eurozone crisis | The World.

Personally, I have always been pro-Europe but accept that the European Commission now has too much power. This year, we are likely to see a strong push-back in the election for MPs to the European Parliament. However, I fear that the status quo will not be changed by democratic means. I hope this will not signal a move towards extremism and civil unrest?

Any thoughts?

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Dickensian Britain

My good friend Pat Cox put up a wonderful blog which I hope you will read. Here is the link:

As always, Pat’s heart is in exactly the right place and I can feel her pain as she writes about those who are suffering most as a result of this recession. Why is it, she is asking (I think) that it is always the poor that have to be made to suffer when things go wrong and not the rich? I suppose the answer is because human beings aren’t very nice to each other. I also feel that the political answers are far from easy and that there is no political party that is really “fir for purpose” but then, I would say that,. wouldn’t I?

Anyway, I put the following comment under Pat’s blog. I think what I said is right (even if it is impossible to put it all in a quick comment) but I have a horrid feeling that things will have to get a lot worse before people will unite in trying to put matters right again. That will, I fear, mean being reasonable content with what we need and to turn our backs on what we want. There was a time when only a very very few could afford to have what they wanted and the rest of us were lucky if we got what we needed. Now the vast majority of us can afford a few “wants” (even if we have to borrow to get them) and somehow that means we are less caring about ensuring that everyone gets what they need. Even so, we have come a long way since Dicken’s time.

Here is that comment:

If only it were as simple as you suggest, Pat. The problem started when we decided to stand up against the Germans and entered into a costly war. We scraped through because we had the wealth of our empire (although some of what we took from them is now considered to be unethical) and because we were able to borrow from the USA – borrow such a lot that we took about 60 years to pay it back. And the country was on its knees. There weren’t enough jobs, there wasn’t enough food. So the government came up with the idea that they needed to create employment (which was basically right, I suppose) and that the only way to do that was for people to be allowed to borrow so that they could buy things that we were making – like vacuum cleaners and washing machines and cars – with the help of Hire Purchase (not a new idea but then pushed by the government). 

The government also borrowed (mainly from savers here in the UK in those days) in order to build things – including houses. 

At the same time we were able to benefit because there were parts of the world where people were prepared to work for a pittance. 

And then borrowing became the norm and people stopped “needing” and started “wanting” and “wants” became “needs” and we could no longer pay our debts (we being us as individuals and as a nation) and clever people thought of clever things to do with money and global industries and banks became more powerful than the government (and other governments, too) and then some of these bright ideas turned out to be not quite so bright and nobody really knew what to do. 

Then people who had been working for next to nothing started to say, “hey – what about us” and some of the cheap labour disappeared as did the cheap materials. 

And still we do not know what to do. Was QE the way to cope with the crash? Should we borrow more to get out of the position we are in? How do we control what is going on? And then we hit the worst problem of all. 

The government cannot control the borrowing and the wants of those with decent incomes and they have their hands tied by those with big incomes because they generate the wealth we all need. The only place the government has control is over the less well off. 

That is why we need (but do not want) a huge rethink. It is easy to blame the government and they do some things that seem wrong and stupid but there is actually so little they can do. All of us need to pull in our horns a bit and that bit should go to help those who need it most. That is why I would go for quite a high minimum wage, and a tax threshold of about £15,000 and I would scrap much of the regulation that holds back the creation of new businesses but it would all take time – and time is what we do not have.