Monthly Archives: February 2014

When politics wasn’t about money

As you would expect I agree with this. However, what I still want to know is how we can rescue politics – and I really do feel they need to be rescued (and soon).

The Co-op wants us to have our say.

I have just completed an online survey for the Co-op. Here’s the link: http://www.haveyoursay.coop/

Many of the questions raise other questions which is, of course, the case with many surveys. The sort of questions that force you to give false answers include “Please indicate how likely you are to recommend our services to a friend. I go for a 1 (extremely unlikely). This sends the wrong signal but has the merit of being honest. It isn’t that I have a problem with the organisation, in this case the Co-op, but that I never consider it my business to recommend anything to anybody unless they ask me to. In that case I try to find out what they really want and suggest what I feel would be best for them.

I can offer one example: an elderly woman arrived in our village (this was many years ago) and we soon found ourselves on good terms. She wanted some electrical work carried out: could I suggest someone? This posed a bit of a problem as there were two obvious candidates. One was a rather scary looking young man who was a first class electrician – the other was a comfortable middle-aged chap with a huge sense of humour. Which to suggest: the better electrician or the one most my near neighbour was more likely to feel comfortable with? For the record, I chose the latter. However, under no circumstances can I hear myself saying, “Have you tried out our local Co-op? Really they are wonderful. Not only do they offer really low prices but they take great care to promote all sorts of local activities, are hot on Fair Trade, paying all their taxes, caring for the environment, giving priority to employee rights and training AND they will give you a divi of between £5 and £10 each year if you are a loyal member.” No, not my scene.

That, however, leads me onto two matters about business and politics.

The prime concern of any business is to make a profit. That is why it is there. There is no other reason. That profit will be used to recompense people who have invested in that business – the that in terms of cash or effort. Before taking this any further, we should remember that those investors will include an awful lot of people: people with pensions plans, managed savings plans, life assurance policies and so on. They will not all be bloated plutocrats.

Now it may be that a business will improve its profits by doing things that have nothing to do, on the face of it, with making a profit. These may well include taking great care to promote all sorts of local activities, being hot on Fair Trade, paying all their taxes, caring for the environment, giving priority to employee rights and training and so on. It is not, however, their job to do these things per se: they do them to increase the profits they make or they go to the wall.

Many great men – from Cadbury to Bill Gates – use those profits on a personal level to do things that matter to them. We call them philanthropists and they are the salt of the earth. Interestingly, though, within the business environment such men tend to be a tough as old boots – which is exactly how it should be.

Incidentally, I do think it was a mistake by the Co-op to raise this matter of corporates paying taxes and not “wriggling out of them”. We have tax laws for a good reason and if the powers that be make a hash of getting those laws right so that nobody really knows quite what should and should not be taxed then said powers create conflict with the tax collectors wanting one interpretation and the tax payers another. No blame should attach to either side in these conflicts: it should be placed fairly and squarely on the shoulders of the those drafting the laws.

Now for the second matter: the relationship between business and politics. The Co-op (as is well known) supports the Labour party in a number of ways (including allowing them cheap loans through the Co-op bank). Do I approve? Well, I certainly do not approve of the Labour party but that doesn’t stop me using the Co-op here in the village because it is either that or get into the car. However, when I am in a place where there are other options then I would not use the Co-op (something I could not express on the survey but which I would imagine the Co-op would like to know).

In an ideal world, no politician would be beholden to anyone in business but there is little point in aspiring to such an ideal: it just won’t happen. The best policy would be to work towards a situation where we take money out of tribal politics but is there such a policy that is doable? This needs a bit more thought but I would welcome any bright ideas anyone might happen to have.

Fracking, Flooding and Floundering

Fracking

If you have been following the discussion about fracking between Kathleen Hassal and myself here you will have realised that our main concerns are centred around one simple – but seemingly extreme – problem:getting hold of the facts. I suggested that there was one area of disagreement between us and that is to determine the level of government that should be taking decisions regarding what is somewhere between being the extraction of valuable fossil fuels at no great cost and risk to operations that will destroy our environment to the extent that it can no longer support us. Obviously the truth lies somewhere between those two extremes so, just for the sake of argument, let us rate fracking as being potentially from 1 to 10 where the lower the number the better – the higher the number the greater the risk to the environment.

It seems, from the available evidence, that there are some locations where a score of about 2 could be achieved – others that would struggle to keep down to 9. If we accept that argument then each individual well need to be rated and a political decision taken as to what is acceptable (e.g. anything which scored 3 or less).

Agreement as to the mechanism that should be employed should be a national matter: it would be a nonsense if the criteria set for one part of the country was different from another. It is, of course, important that the right criteria are chosen and that would not be easy but unavoidable. Another national matter would be the construction of a tight set of regulations that set the required standards to be met by all operators.

However, determining what “score” a given application to frack should be given should, I feel, be made on a local basis. The reason is simple: the local people will be better informed about conditions in their area. Likewise it should be local people who ensure that operators meet regulations. Again the reason is simple: the local people will be more aware of infringements than a centralised body far away from the action. Furthermore, it really is time that people began to take a proper interest in what is happening in their communities: much of the detachment from politics

Flooding

A similar argument can be put forward when considering flood defences and dealing with floods. Since the middle 1990’s these duties have been centralised. This has not proved to be a success. Local knowledge has been lost and local initiatives have been squashed. Even worse, the concept of constant boring maintenance has been lost: all that boring work that ensures that drains are at least always clear even if they then prove to be inadequate, that pumping stations where required function properly and so on. Here there are two problems: there is no kudos to be gained for a politician who overseas the sort of work that is carried out with no publicity and no incentive or a politician on a short term contract to think in the long term – an absolute requirement when considering problems such as this. Instead the mantra runs through: it was not my fault guv, but theirs, and now there are some difficult decisions to be made. The latter is, of course, indicating that the right decisions will be of little use come the day of the election and it is far better to keep the ball in play until then so as to avoid risking upsetting anyone.

Clearly if one of the power houses, the wealth creating centres, in the country is at risk it is right and proper that general taxation should be used to meet the demands of protecting that power house. The difficult decisions come when a large number of voters are to be asked to fork out for the benefit of the few. This is a difficult decision: the country cannot afford to ensure that everyone is properly protected. However, a country that can afford to consider HS2, afford to maintain Trident, afford create a wildlife sanctuary at a cost of some £31,000,000 should be able to afford the basics that are required.

We have moved away from “hard protection” towards a softer approach. For example. The sea wall protecting the countryside from the waters of the River Humber has been breached and, in a controlled manner (which, of course, means an expensive manner) the adjoining farmland has been converted into a marshy area where water can be held until levels drop. Try explaining this technique to the Dutch.

The problem with hard protection is cost – but the cost of constantly maintaining sea walls, breakwaters and the like pales into insignificance when considering the costs incurred when they are breached. Back to the hard decisions.

One possible way forward which will appeal to very few is to take a look at how many of the features were built in the first place. They used a lot of manpower and very simple tools. The manpower lived in caravans and huts close to where the men were working. Now we have many thousands of fit and healthy youngsters unable to find a job. Is it beyond the wit of man to bring these two thoughts together and to start looking after the infrastructure of our country properly?

Floundering

Let me admit that I chose this word for alliterative rather than rational reasons but, despite that, it is about right. I refer, of course, to the way our politicians at local and national levels have been behaving recently.

For once in my life I find myself feeling very sorry for our politicians. Years and years of diverting money away from all those boring jobs – see above – into trying to buy the electorate have resulted in chaos on a scale that is greater than we have seen here in the UK for a very long time. Not only have our transport links proved weak but thousands of people are suffering from flooded homes and workplaces. There is, of course, nothing that the politicians can do – or very little. They could have used serving members of the armed forces to help people cut off by floods or doing all possible to contain the water but apart from that realistically speaking nothing at all.

No, the people in the driving seat now are the ones on what we love to call “the front line”. The people doing everything they can to contain the damage, to bolster the people affected and so on. All the politicians can do is to make flying visits, grab a few photo opportunities, make a few inane speeches and return from whence they have come.

Did I say inane speeches? Well, our Prime Minister whilst visiting Dawlish promised us a “resilient” railway. Sorry Mr Cameron but we don’t want a resilient railway that can bend in the face of every wave – we want a robust one that will serve us in the face of increasing violence in the weather and a secondary route into the south west (even if slow and inconvenient) to keep some connection with the rest of the country when the coastal route fails.

Yes it will cost money but it would be money well spent as it would increase the productivity of this part of the world and that would benefit everyone in the UK.

I fear this is not so much a blog as a rant but I needed to get some of it out of my system. Not only have I been feeling sorry for our politicians for they too are well out of their depth, I have been shocked at how angry I feel about the way they have behaved in the face of all the suffering – much of which has been caused because, frankly, they have been failing in one of the main reasons for having a government: to protect the people. That does not always call for an aircraft carrier. Sometimes all it needs is a couple of pumps and a dredger. Above all this is not the time to be playing party politics. Now is the time to pull together in order to make things work again and to keep them that way.

More on Fracking

If you have been following the blogs here on that subject you will know that I have been in communication on the subject with Kathleen Hassall who lives in the US. We share similar concerns and so I was delighted to receive a long email from her the other day which I would like to share with you. Here is what she said (and I will write a response some time next week)..

Reading Mr. Willett’s words here about his own thoughtful struggle to
see the best way forward with regard to fracking, I am most struck by
the degree to which we are all in this together, this effort to find
our way through unknown territory, sometimes dark. There is hope in
this I think – that everyone in favor of breathing air, drinking water
and turning on lights at night is ultimately on the same side. I am
happy to be on Mr. Willett’s side.

Mr. Willett is right to suggest there are pulling wires of interest
and influence in scholarly publications, as in all arenas where
careers are made, and there is no gospel to be found in journals. In
the particular case of the researchers whose work was disparaged by
the shale gas industry spokesman – the researchers who compiled reports
from six states of illness and death among farm animals and pets
following exposure to fracking chemicals – one, Dr. Michelle Bamberger,
is a practicing veterinarian, educated at Cornell (a prestigious
private research university in the US); the other, Dr. Robert E.
Oswald, is a professor of pharmacology in the Cornell University
College of Veterinary Medicine. A recipient of both Guggenheim and
Fulbright fellowships, with scores of published articles, he has far
outdistanced the testing stage at which he had to publish in order not
to perish; he long ago established himself as a credible voice.
Surely on the specialized topic of animal health, these two deserve a
sober hearing.

This is not of course to say – I think no one would suggest – that one
narrowly-focused article can be anything more than one small piece of
the complex puzzle over which we all now shake our heads. That an
industry lobbyist so quickly moved to brush this piece off the table,
I find troubling; here again Mr. Willett and I are in agreement.

It is at great cost to public understanding, and to authentic public
choice, that the dialogue on fracking, combative and polarized, is
also so distorted by fugitive information and unacknowledged interest
that every purported fact seems to require investigation. Meanwhile
wheels are in motion, driven forward by the very powerful engines of
anticipated wealth and national energy security, and it seems clear
the UK is destined for fracking. Even as I write this, Cuadrilla is
moving on Lancashire, waving hundreds of thousands of pounds.

What can we know as fracking approaches? The hydraulic fracturing
industry has adopted a rhetorical strategy famously employed by
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, US President 1933-1945. Taking office in
the darkest days of the Great Depression, Roosevelt delivered a
stirring inaugural address in which he declared, “The only thing we
have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror
which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Neatly here the new President confined all sense and all honor in his
own corral. In one sentence he reduced all possible camps to two:
self-terrified ninnies, dead weight on the backs of the valiant – and
those with clear eyes and steady nerves, the ones who would roll up
their sleeves, pitch in for the New Deal, and build the bridge to a
better future.

Of course Mr. Roosevelt, giving that speech in 1933, was perfectly
well aware that there was plenty more than fear itself to fear – some
40% of US banks had failed; unemployment was pushing hard on 25%; US
mining, logging, industry, agriculture, all were foundering; tens of
millions in America had too little to eat; and unrest in many cities
was turning violent. It would have ill-served the president’s
purpose to acknowledge any of this. He was not trying, after all, to
inform. He was trying to motivate. He was trying to recruit. He was
trying to sell a particular horse.

The fracking industry at present, likewise. Perhaps the most
effective of the industry’s self-promotional tacks is the suggestion
that questioners are emotional rather than rational, fearful without
cause, weak-willed, silly. Thus it presents its own science as hard
minded and definitive; it dismisses dissenting voices variously as
ignorant, irrelevant, or hysterical. What else should it do? It is
bent on directing the discussion to one conclusion.

(As to whether the fracking industry knows there are reasons to fear,
I present one modest piece of evidence. Understandably, the
“landmen”, industry representatives seeking leases, are not prone to
offer landowners lists of things that might go wrong – but the US
federal Securities and Exchange Commission dictates that potential
investors in any enterprise must have access to just such a list. No
doubt the industry strives to keep the obligatory catalogue as brief
and bland as possible, so as not to scare off money. Still, in 2008,
potential investors in Cabot Oil & Gas were apprised of possible “well
site blowouts, cratering and explosions; equipment failures;
uncontrolled flows of natural gas, oil or well fluids; fires;
formations with abnormal pressures; pollution and other environmental
risks.”)

In truth I don’t see how we can reasonably expect the shale gas
industry to volunteer information contrary to its own interests. As
much as Roosevelt was, it is determined to make the sale.

So at present we have the horse-trader’s emphatic assurance that the
horse is sound. He declines to have the horse examined by anybody
else before we buy it, and insists in any case nobody but himself is
qualified to judge the horse – and then he suggests that if we do not
reach for the reins, we are sissies. On this basis, shall we buy?

I return to the question of what we can know before the frackers have
at England. Mr. Willett is entirely in the right to suggest we
cannot know without careful investigation which of the many unsettling
reports about fracking are entirely reliable, and which may be skewed
by error, ambition, or special interest. We can know, however, that
in the US the shale gas industry, with its inexhaustible war chest and
its private stables of eager scientists, PR strategists, professional
lobbyists and lawyers, has not been able to contain a still-rising
tide of dissent. We can confirm that complaints and questions are
multiplying in every US state where fracking is underway. We can know
that questioners and dissenters on record represent a remarkable range
of experience, interest and approach. Among them are environmental
scientists and citizens’ rights groups, specialists in food safety,
fishermen, human health researchers, farmers, water quality experts,
investigative journalists, law professionals, landscape
preservationists, landfill monitors, the US Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, leaders in the Audubon Society, landowners
whose property has been fracked, and householders now able with a
match to ignite the water that comes from their kitchen taps. We can
safely assume that some of the myriad alarms raised by all these
disparate voices are unintentionally or even intentionally false.
What of the rest?

I do not like to think so, I would be happy to be wrong in this, but I
believe, on the basis of what has happened in my own country, and what
is happening still, that England is now in jeopardy. Perhaps the
fracking of your country is inevitable. Even if this is so, you who
fought to keep your forests whole, you who mourned the loss of your
ancient oaks–you have time, still, a breathing moment in which to
prepare. You can take action now to protect your country and your
people as far as possible from damage.

With one important exception, I want to endorse Mr. Willett’s
thoughtful and prudent suggestions as to what you might do, add one or
two specifics, and have done.

Mr. Willett expresses concern that Britain’s political leaders, in
their eagerness to streamline progress, may to some degree exempt the
shale gas industry from regulation and oversight in the UK. Surely
not? If you doubt this would be a singularly boneheaded move, only
look west. Of all the reckless and costly decisions US policy makers
have ever embraced – admittedly a long and harrowing list – the
establishment of the so-called Halliburton loophole, exempting the
shale gas industry from federal environmental protection laws, is a
strong contender for the most benighted. This is an industry that
injects millions of gallons of water carrying hundreds of chemical
compounds forcibly into the earth. Did we not think this might have
some environmental effect that would bear looking into? The industry
produces millions and millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater
which cannot be made clean by traditional wastewater treatment plants.
Did we not think there were any unanswered questions here? Did we
not think?

There has been much talk in this fracking debate about risks – which
risks are illusory, which risks are tolerable, which risks are known.
There are risks entirely avoidable: simply do not lower the bar. I
hope Mr. Willett and others like him will succeed in persuading
Britain’s leaders to hold this new industry accountable to all the
laws already in place to protect your nation’s natural wealth. Why
else do you have those laws?

If the shale gas industry, as it insists, does not represent a threat
to the environment, it should not balk at careful monitoring or at
prohibitions of damage. Would not objective oversight and
information gathering serve to prove the justice of its claims?

Monitoring will also generate a growing body of information, so that
every decision to expand fracking will be better informed than the
last.

Information gathering at every stage is key to minimizing risk. As
Mr. Willett notes, we need detailed information about potential sites
before fracking as well as during and after. We also need to know
precisely what chemicals are being injected at any given site – and too
much is at stake to permit the industry to withhold this information
as a “trade secret.” Without such information we cannot separate
coincidence from cause; we cannot document change; we cannot learn the
truth about fracking.

Risk can be reduced also by following Mr. Willetts’ advice on
site-by-site drilling approval dependent on information about local
conditions. In the US, some regions characteristically drought
prone – places where water is slenderly supplied by nature and already
overtaxed by human us – were nevertheless opened to fracking.
England can show far better sense. You know where your wildlife is
most vulnerable, where your wetlands are most fragile, where you are
apt to run short of water and where you are prone to flood. You can
identify the safest placements for shale gas mining operations.

Three more suggestions (again, based on what is happening over here):

Limit proliferation, at least until you’ve had a chance to see how the
first of the mines suit you. “Fracking by the Numbers,” a report
published in 2013, counts 82 thousand shale gas wells now operational
in the US, with 33,753 in the state of Texas alone. Whatever
opportunities there are in fracking operations for things to go wrong,
we have multiplied by tens of thousands.

See to the leases: very much can be done here to protect the
landowners who lease to frackers and to insure that damages done to
the countryside will be repaired. Here is a link to a document
prepared by Harvard Law School to advise US landowners on specific
issues the best lease will address, and specific rights it can secure:
http://tinyurl.com/Harvardleasingguide . Here is a link to an
article that appeared in the New York Times, “Learning too Late of the
Perils in Gas Well Leases,” about landowners who were unaware of what
rights they had given up, and what obligations they had assumed, in
leases they only thought they understood:
http://tinyurl.com/perilsofleases .

Use the full power and resources of your national government to
negotiate with the shale gas industry. Do not send, to dicker with
this formidable and hungry power, your earnest and cash-poor local
councils. With all due respect to your councillors, this is gnats
against volcanoes.

I have said I disagree with Mr. Willett on one point. I would rather
not – and in a sense I do not. He says fracking sites in England
should be approved only where there is “a known safe place for the
disposal of contaminated water.” I wish I knew of the existence of
any such place. This is the ominous question to which I have been
able to find no reassuring answer. I read in “Fracking by the
Numbers” that in the year 2012, contaminated wastewater produced by US
fracking operations amounted to 280 billion gallons. It is a number
stunning to thought. Where is the safe place?
I want to close on a more optimistic note: I do not at all doubt
England can do a far better job than my own country has done in terms
of managing this challenge. I even believe that if you do rigorously
monitor and regulate the frackers, you will will motivate them to take
care. You will lead them to develop ever safer procedures. Perhaps
even, with you looking constantly over their shoulders, they (with all
their money/power/science) will actually solve the problem of waste.

Here again, you people of the little boats, England can show the world.
From the land of the fracked, I wish you godspeed.

(And in the interest of full disclosure, I report that I am on
nobody’s payroll–and except as a breather of air, a drinker of water,
and a reader by lamplight, I have no dog in this fight.)