Category Archives: Environment

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.

A link between lead and violent behaviour?

Browsing through the blogosphere can offer some interesting insights into all sorts of situations. One of my pet fascinations (probably to the extent of it being extremely unhealthy) is causation. So much legislation is passed which is based on an assumption of causation that may or may not be right. Often this assumption is based on statistics and that can be very misleading. There are many reasons for this.

First and foremost is the creation of the statistic which will usually involve the selection of the group to be analysed (people in the case of a poll but it can be almost anything such as soil samples). Unless the group choice is both neutral and comprehensive, the statistics will be inaccurate.

Then comes the interpretation of the statistics. Clearly I am in the area of crime in this blog so the obvious example is to look at the statistics that indicate that crime rates are dropping. These can be interpreted in two ways: crime rates really are dropping – thanks to the perception that the police are useless less crime is reported. In my view the truth is probably a bit of both but that opinion is pretty worthless (how could I really know?).

Lastly there is the determination of the cause based on these statistics. If crime really is dropping, the next stage should be to try to find out why. However, in the frantic world of politics where people are trying to combine two activities that are mutually exclusive (doing what is right for the nation plus remaining electable) the reaction is simple: if it ain’t broke don’t mend it. Actually not a bad reaction since “mending” always carries “unexpected consequences” but that is another subject.

If you think, however, that the cause is poor policing you will up the police anti by employing more and giving them greater powers. This could well prove a disaster if you have misread the causation: it could create an even greater divide between the people and the police but do nothing toward reducing crime.

So it was with the greatest pleasure that I stumbled on a post by Reality Swipe canned “The Rise and Fall of a Violent Society“. In short it demonstrates (and I feel conclusively) that when youngsters ingest – from the atmosphere or from painted objects, etc. – lead there is a fundamental change in the way in which the brain develops that means they will be more likely to become violent in later years. Read it for yourself if you want to be convinced and be grateful that we now live in a world where lead is no longer used so widely (especially in motor fuels – which resulted in high lead levels in the atmosphere –  and in paints). Thus we do not need to take further action in this case but it clearly shows the need to find causation before acting to correct a problem.

Obviously removing one cause of violence will not remove all violence so now we need to look at what else needs attention. Since I was complaining about statistics and now I am accepting that statistics enabled us to uncover this causation I should add that these statistics come from the right group and are comprehensive. The one crime that is bound to be reported to the police is murder (unless carried out so discretely that murder is not suspected in which case it is hardly an example of a violent crime) so we may accept the reductions in the murder rate as an accurate figure. Likewise the drop in the level of lead in the environment is not disputed although more needs to be done to lower it further.

Let me finish with a quote from Reality Swipe’s blog. “Like most good science, this has fallen on deaf ears. There is minimal political push around the world for this to be addressed. Most politicians, like good old Rudy Giuliani, are happy claiming that their policies are the reason for this drop in crime . . .”