Saturday, 10 August 2013

What Reason To Believe The Frackers?

FrackingIf you travel down the west coast of England, on the rail line running from Manchester to North Wales, you’ll eventually pass through a long tunnel just beyond Runcorn East. I suppose in European and World terms, it’s a very short tunnel. Yet it’s uniquely a long tunnel in an otherwise flat part of the country and has the novelty of making your ears go pop. Travel through the tunnel lasts a minute or so and you emerge just before Frodsham where a view to the Mersey Estuary opens up on the right and stretches for miles across the sand banks that fill the wide mouth of the river to the point where the brown fresh waters meet the grey brine of the Irish Sea.

In the distant past, I worked a year at the cable company, BICC, in Helsby, one stop beyond Frodsham. When I was travelling there each day, Helsby station had just won some national awards for being the best kept station in the country and, to my eyes, it deserved the accolades. It was beautifully maintained with richly coloured abundant flower beds and old style railway buildings that looked like they'd been plucked from some episode of Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. Since then, it’s become unstaffed and much of it is boarded up; no doubt a  little money saved but for an incalculable loss of value…

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="384"] Helsby Hill (Wikipedia)[/caption]

Yet Helsby village itself still sits perched on the side of one of the few proper highpoints in the area, rising 370 feet over the surrounding land. Looking up the sheer rock face is dizzying, especially when it’s being climbed as it often is by people providing points of Lyrcra colour against the reddish grey rock. Walk to the top and the view is magnificent, with the misted mountains of Wales visible through the clouds to the west and Liverpool in the distant northwest where the Liver Building stands distinct and often glitters in the sun against the banks of the brown river. Directly to the north, you look across the runways of John Lennon Airport and the movements of planes make if feel like you’re watching a diorama of a functioning airport, perfect down to the infinitesimal scale. On a clear day, it’s an uplifting view and quite unique in that it gives a view of a huge swathe of the north, filled with remarkable things to see. Yet perhaps the most telling view is to be seen if you turn your eyes to the northeast and look at the eyesore of the petro-chemical industry that’s built up around Runcorn and Widnes.

The scale of the chemical works is something to behold and locals I knew would often talk about the problems they’d experienced living near such concentrated industry. I don’t know how true this is but I was told that one leak (chlorine, I think it was) meant the police ordered the residents to stay indoors. It was wise they did. Apparently, the leak even changed the colour of their windows and walls.

I always found it hard to believe that people could live happily with dangerous chemicals just a few gusts away, but then, closer to home, there was Warrington where climbing off the train at Bank Quay station, you would often be subjected to the smell of the soap works, the taste of washing powder on your tongue, and, at its worst, a mild burning sensation in your eyes and nostrils. I grew up in the shadow of a gasholder, when the full tank would block our TV reception, and I played for hours on the local ‘mountains’ which were actually industrial waste from the local vitriol industry which had dump its spoil there. I’m also far more used to the problems of subsidence, being born, raised, and living in one of the most heavily mined areas of the country. There are old local tales of houses being swallowed up in sink holes and my old school was eventually demolished because of subsidence but I remember its later years when the second floor listed so heavily to one side that it made it difficult to walk down parts of the corridor. Of course, as a child, you find that sort of thing funny, walking on something that resembled the walkway into a funhouse. As an adult you realise that the whole place was literally falling down around our ears.

Although tighter environmental laws mean that things have improved dramatically in recent years, having lived or worked in proximity to the chemical industry and mining subsidence, I’m wary of the promises made by the fracking industry and the assurances they give people about its safety. I worry when I hear another high profile head in the fracking debate suggest that shale fracking should be done in the north to save the industry from the kind of protests they’ve seen in the south. Up here, apparently, things are desolate and there isn’t as much to go wrong should deep fracking cause problems at the surface.

It’s odd that southern politicians and business men should talk like this, almost as though repetition of disputed facts make them more likely to be true. Perhaps they mean that protests will be ignored by the southern based media, which is certainly likely and, indeed, probable. The Times recently sacked their northern correspondent as part of cuts. That is clearly what we mean to those in London.

Perhaps they also mean that influential people won’t stand in their way if drilling is conducted beneath the homes of people with less political sway. That is also true. There aren’t that many rich influential land owners with connections to politicians living in these parts. That’s why the landscape around here is littered with examples of what happens when industry is left to tend to its own affairs.

Yet the perception that the north is desolate is one I don’t recognise at all. My experience of travelling between the north and south is that, except for the densely built area around London, there’s far more empty space in the south than there is anywhere in the North West. High up beyond Blackburn and heading towards the Lake District, things might get more desolate but there are huge swathes of southern England where you can also look from the horizon to horizon without seeing more than a few buildings. In the North West, there aren’t that many times you can look to the horizon and see only green. Industrial estates, new housing developments, towns, and villages seem to spread from Blackpool down to Southport, across to Preston, and down to the densely built belt running across the country from Liverpool in the West, through to Manchester, Leeds, and Sheffield.

Energy independence is to be welcomed but while I’m not sure we need yet another dirty form of energy, I am positive that if this industry isn’t suitable for the fields of Sussex and the South Downs, then it shouldn’t be suitable for Merseyside, Cheshire,  Lancashire, and Yorkshire, where more than just a few people happen to live. The only case the government could make is that we really are the second class citizens they seem to believe we are.

Not that I suppose our protests would amount to anything. Not give the kind of casual ignorance demonstrated by those in power. Government thinking is rank with easy stereotypes, from their assumptions about immigration, the poor, the unemployed, all the way to their belief that bankers are victimised and underpaid. Or at least that’s how it appears when Lord Howell, George Osborne’s father in law, explained that he didn’t mean to insult the North East by suggesting it was desolate when, in fact, he actually meant to say the North West.

Given he represents a North West constituency, George Osborne’s recent encouragement to the fracking industry might have been a little surprising had he not already demonstrated a wilful disregard for the north. I just hope his constituents remember this the next time they have chance to stick a cross beside to his name as Member of Parliament for Tatton. Wilmslow, within his constituency, is one of the richer areas of the region, home to Alex Ferguson and many top Premiership footballers from City and United. It's strange how all those golf courses were never thought the obvious place to start the search for shale gas...





  1. What would you prefer...?

    A) Fracked well heads that can be hidden with a few trees and provide reliable, cheap energy for hundreds of years.
    B) Swathes of on-shore wind farms which don't work for the vast majority of the time.

  2. Good question but not really the point I was making. You see, I'm not against fracking entirely, though I do think it's another dirty fossil fuel and I've not seen any compelling science to suggest that it's safe. The experiences they've had in America are horrendous, though I do accept the UK shale is deeper.

    My point is: if fracking is unsuitable for areas of countryside in the south, why is it suitable for densely built up areas around Blackpool and St Helens (in other words, right under me)? The thing is, the government in London really do shit on the north from a very great height and I fear that fracking is going to be the latest example of that. The test fracking they did around Blackpool was thought to have caused earth tremors. I wonder how that would be been reported and received if it had happened in Hampshire. It's the usual double standards of this that I was writing about.

  3. I got your point, and beautifully written and presented it was too!

    There is a great deal of hysteria and propaganda against fracking yet gas is not 'another dirty fossil fuel' and there is plenty of evidence from America and elsewhere to suggest it is safe.

    It is amazing how much traction (I nearly typed fracktion!) anti-fracking propaganda films like 'Gaslands' have gained... Everybody quotes it yet it is utter bollox.

    A good read is Matt Ridley's report - The Shale Gas Shock which you can download here: -

    My point is that it doesn't matter if you live in the North, South, East or West... it doesn't matter what the local campaigners do or if the government is attempting to have a great big dump on the North (although fracking would provide real jobs)...

    The bottom line is that to pursue an energy policy based on renewables is madness and will result in the whole country covered in ugly, expensive and mostly non-productive bird mincers...

  4. Well, that's quite the Monday morning read and, believe me, I did read it. Surprisingly readable and although my cynicism of big business and government hasn't changed, I can see the appeal of fracking and most of my concerns are now eased. In fact, it seems foolish not to frack.

    My question is now why the public debate more informed by this kind of information? Why is the Guardian, just yesterday, talking about farmers in America whose land is now arrid because of fracking? Is it just scare mongering? Reading that report, I'd have to say that it is, though I'd be interested to see an environmentalist's response before I'd be entirely happy with it going on under my house.

  5. I guess because the 'public debate' is led by the likes of the BBC and Guardian who believe that the tiny amount of CO2 in the atmosphere contributed by man will create catastrophic global warming...

    ...the same people that think we should live in Yurts, eat lentils and rely on electricity from renewable sources...

    ...those same people in face that derive their income and pension funds from investments in renewable sources...

  6. Better brains than mine are still trying to figure out this out, so I can't say I'm in either camp regarding CO2 and the climate. I read the stuff but have yet to be convinced, though my leanings I guess are more green than skeptic. Then again, my environmental policy is probably driven by my dislike of people who just irritate me and they tend to be the greedy over-consuming loons who tear down beautiful old trees to erect plastic street lamps bought from B&Q and have more 4x4s in their drive than the SAS.