I went on a march on Sunday (along with around 1,000 others at the very least – the BBC apparently had the cheek to say 100-200 then, but said “hundreds” yesterday) to the anti-fracking camp at Barton Moss (in Irlam, Salford, Greater Manchester) where drilling for shale gas (known as “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking” for short) is taking place by the company iGas.
Fracking was top of the news agenda yesterday on most if not all TV news programmes in the UK – and was also featured heavily on RT (Russia Today, Freeview 85). This was partly due to direct action by protesters that day (including getting on top of a tanker and holding up traffic) and the high policing costs that could make it uneconomic, and partly due to UK prime minister David Cameron doubling the bribe to councils from 50% of the business rates to 100% (giving back with one hand a bit of what he has taken with the other as part of the austerity agenda), clearly scared about the unpopularity of fracking, which should be massive in urban areas as long as campaigners put across effective arguments. The benefits to residents however are tiny – £100,000 may be a lot per person if there are just a few farmers nearby, but it is ridiculous to expect city-dwellers to accept a minuscule share of that money, plus the 1% of revenues if shale gas is found (compared with 10% in some countries overseas), even if there is just a small chance their tapwater will be undrinkable like in Dimock in the USA as covered up until revealed in a Huffington Post article, or even get skin lesions from showering in water contaminated by fracking: “The first person in Dimock to discover that there were problems with the water was Norma Fiorentino, whose water well exploded. And it took a little while and, for a certain period of time, some of the residents were still showering in the water and drinking the water and were experiencing a lot of the health impacts and dizziness and skin lesions. And, of course, the long-term effects aren’t known. But, over time, they started to realize that the water is not safe to use.” Some other problems are listed in an article I co-wrote for an issue of Revolutionary Platform News: Number 6: “mini-earthquakes, subsidence and noise for those who live nearby (hence reduced house prices), heavy use of water, radioactive contamination, carcinogenic chemicals”. If councils accept the bribe, expect a lot of the councillors to lose their seats in the local elections in May!
It is the point mentioned above about putting across effective arguments that I am particularly concerned about – arguing for tidal power (sometimes called “tidal energy”) and putting serious amounts of research and development (R&D) into that technology (at last taking place from 2012 in Scotland but with an investment of a mere £30 million according to this article, the same amount as the French company Total is investing into just one Lincolnshire drilling project according to the Independent due to fracking being banned in France and the lucrative profits – part of the solution to solving environmental problems is revolutionary change involving overthrowing the leaders of such companies without compensating rich shareholders and running them democratically by ordinary people). I fully agree with arguments about moving away from fossil fuels (including shale gas obtained from fracking) and opposing nuclear fission, and instead investing in renewable forms of energy. Unfortunately, however, the renewables suggested by speakers at the protest on Sunday limited suggestions to using wind turbines (which don’t work when there’s no wind or even too much wind and they produce little power compared with their cost) and solar panels (which aren’t particularly efficient either in the UK).
Furthermore, there is a shortage of rare earth metals used for both technologies (wind turbines and solar panels) as revealed in a November 2013 Yale University report by Nicola James entitled A Scarcity of Rare Metals Is Hindering Green Technologies:
With the global push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s ironic that several energy- or resource-saving technologies aren’t being used to the fullest simply because we don’t have enough raw materials to make them.
For example, says Alex King, director of the new Critical Materials Institute, every wind farm has a few turbines standing idle because their fragile gearboxes have broken down. They can be fixed, of course, but that takes time – and meanwhile wind power isn’t being gathered. Now you can make a more reliable wind turbine that doesn’t need a gearbox at all, King points out, but you need a truckload of so-called “rare earth” metals to doit, and there simply isn’t the supply. Likewise, we could all be using next-generation fluorescent light bulbs that are twice as efficient as the current standard…
Thin, cheap solar panels need tellurium, which makes up a scant 0.0000001 percent of the earth’s crust, making it three times rarer than gold.
Pros and cons of tidal power are listed on this web page for example. The efficiency of tidal power (using small/medium scale devices on or near the sea bed) in converting kinetic energy into electricity is around 80% (compared to coal and oil at 30%), capturing energy from tides moving in both directions for 10 hours a day. Tides are completely reliable and regular, and devices produce no greenhouse gases. The main problems are the initial costs of constructing the devices and breakdown costs (the problem of corrosion due to saltwater can be solved by using less corrosive materials like stainless steel but this increases production costs). Marine life could be affected due to the blades, but I suppose I care more about wind turbines killing warm-blooded creatures (birds) than tidal devices killing the mainly cold-blooded creatures in seas! After a fair amount of searching online, I am very confident in saying that no rare earth metals are required for tidal devices, unlike wind and solar! Although it has had a tiny amount of R&D so far compared with nuclear power (and probably fracking) my father Max Wallis, a scientific adviser for Friends of the Earth, told me that tidal power already requires smaller public subsidies than nuclear power, and there is of course no clean-up cost (still unresolved for nuclear waste).
At the Transitional National Council of Left Unity (LU) on Saturday, at which I was a delegate, it was agreed to make opposing fracking (among other issues) a campaigning priority, but our particular set of policies on the environment won’t be decided until the first of two policy-making conferences, to take place on Saturday 29 March in Manchester (with details including how to register appearing on the Left Unity website in due course). There was certainly a big turnout of Manchester LU members on Sunday (but since we didn’t have an LU leaflet I made do with a ThatcheroftheLeft Highlights newsletter with excerpts from an item on this blog entitled 2014: Economic & social chaos? A general strike in Britain at last? Prospects for Left Unity, including the long paragraph on the environment in full:
It is essential when arguing for socialism that we don’t neglect the environment. The argument Labour has put forward on freezing energy bills is popular because of the huge profits the gas and electricity companies make, and many elderly people die literally because they cannot stay warm at winter time. However, it is such a shame that what Owen Jones particularly liked in Ed Miliband’s speech As you probably haven’t heard, Ed Miliband pledged 1 million green jobs at Labour Party conference was quietly dropped (largely due to the mass media ignoring by far his most radical proposal). Arguments over not raising petrol prices are inevitably popular, despite cars being far from good for the environment, are predictable. Left Unity should argue strongly against promoting nuclear power (at double the going rate) and pledge to cancel the contract under a socialist government. This is the reverse of companies pulling out of investment in African concentrating solar power (CSP) plants. Now unstable regimes in North Africa and few benefits for poor Africans make it too risky, but under world socialism, CSP plants, taking advantage of the predictable and highly efficient sun, are ideal – and they could provide much of the power for Europe as well as supply villages in Africa where they don’t yet have electricity – and provide income for entire African populations. That’s not to discourage investment in green energy now – I’ve particularly been promoting tidal power… [See points above on this.]
A Manchester LU member had gone to the camp to donate a Christmas pudding and was cooperating with police demands to keep moving (slowly) in front of a lorry, and was picked out with two other woman and arrested, in a blatant attempt to intimidate protesters, and charged with “obstructing a public highway”. She was even banned from attending the anti-fracking camp as a condition of bail, but that was challenged by other protesters in court and has been lifted for her (and is being for all of them I think). Video evidence showed she was moving when the police picked her out, so the police don’t have a leg to stand on. Not only that, they arrested her and others for “obstruction of a public highway” (when it was really a private road and they had removed public footpath signs (as argued in a Freedom of Information request which links to a photo showing them doing it). A Wigan LU member has also been arrested at Barton Moss, but I don’t know any details.
A final point, comparable to the situation with nuclear waste, the Manchester LU member who got arrested informed me of a problem with fracking regarding taxpayers picking up the bill for decontamination of sites (possibly even including radioactive materials!) if fracking companies go bust, according to an article published last month in the Guardian.