By Steve Howell
When the Queen announced government plans last week to make shale gas exploitation easier, I had an unsettling sense of déjà vu.
Business ‘leaders’ were queuing up to insist fracking is ‘absolutely essential’. Ministers were saying dependency on imported gas is reaching ‘worrying levels’. ‘Experts’ were talking up the ‘undeniable’ economic, environmental and national security benefits.
And it all sounded so familiar, reminding me of how North Sea oil was presented as an answer to all our prayers in the 1970s.
Back then, the black gold off Scotland was going to end our reliance on uppity oil producing countries who had mounted an embargo against us for supporting an Israeli attack on Egypt. It would, we were told, herald a new era of wealth and prosperity.
But, forty years on, most of the oil and gas reserves have been consumed in a mad scramble to maximise profit. Output has collapsed to less than half the peak reach in 1999.
And so, after sucking the stuff out of the ocean bed, it looks like we’re going to embark on a new headlong rush to plunder a finite resource, this time from just 300 metres under our towns and cities, bowing – as ever - to the get-rich-quick lobby.
As someone once said, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Or worse than farce perhaps?
I’m no engineer, but I’ve seen enough industrial disasters to know that if you inject millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand under high pressure into the ground beneath densely populated areas for the express purpose of fracturing the earth’s crust, you are asking for trouble.
The hype about shale gas meeting our energy needs for the next forty years does not persuade me it’s worth the risk of contaminating water supplies, spreading carcinogens or causing earthquakes.
And this isn’t scaremongering. In the US, the Ohio state authorities have imposed new restrictions on hydraulic fracturing – or fracking - after concluding it was the ‘probable’ cause of five tremors experienced in March around Youngstown in the foothills of the Appalachians.
Previous studies have linked tremors to the disposal of fracking waste water in deep-injection wells, but this was the first time tremors have been directly linked to the fracturing of shale itself.
Fracking protagonists would have more credibility if they were arguing shale gas is needed to buy time to invest in renewable alternatives and energy efficiency.
But there is mounting evidence of government backtracking on policies that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels:
This bias towards shale gas flies in the face of opinion polls suggesting the vast majority of the public oppose fracking and support renewable alternatives.
In Wales, recent research by YouGov and RenewableUK Cymru found 64% of respondents saying they supported large scale wind projects in their area, compared to just 22% for shale gas and 31% for nuclear.
The survey also found 65% of people said a wind farm would not put them off visiting an area, with an even greater number (73%) saying the same for the presence of a solar farm.
RenewableUK Cymru says that, while Wales is blessed with phenomenal renewable energy resources, we still lag behind Scotland and many European neighbours in developing them.
This is no time for Westminster to be seduced by the vested interests promoting the apparent ‘quick fix’ of shale gas.
Like North Sea oil, it will be pillaged sooner than we expect, leaving us still facing the challenge of building a sustainable economy.
And, in the meantime, burning shale gas could trigger a tipping point in climate change, putting future generations at risk.