Monday, September 19, 2011

Paying for energy profits in disease and death

This descent of the energy production industry into 19th century activities such as “fracking”, which was last tried in Scotland 150 years ago, and marginal drift mining show that capitalism cannot safely tackle the growing energy crisis.

The tragic deaths of four miners in South Wales last week highlighted one side of the increasingly desperate search for energy sources. Camp Frack, set up by local residents and climate activists on a site near Southport in Lancashire, to protest against plans by mining company Cuadrilla Resources to drill for shale gas, draws attention to an equally dangerous activity.

The camp is opposing plans for “fracking” – hydraulic fracturing – where water with chemicals is pumped into rocks to shatter them, releasing the carbon gas which is piped to tankers and transported to power stations. Cuadrilla, backed by Australian mining money and with BP's former chair Lord Browne in support, is one of a number given licence by the Coalition government to pilot fracking. The company is looking at sites across 437 square miles of Lancashire.

Its first operation was suspended in the summer, when geologists suggested they had caused two earthquakes that shook the seaside town of Blackpool. In the USA people living near fracking operations say it causes seismic shifts and serious illnesses. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting a large-scale study on the impacts, and the Camp Frack protesters are demanding the British government halt all activity until it reports.

As well as the health and geological risks, burning shale gas gives off more CO2 than coal. But the risks to the people, the environment and the wildlife of the Ribble Valley have been simply ignored. The US anti-fracking film Gasland, was nominated for an Oscar last year and you can find out more about it here.

The sum total of possible shale gas deposits in Britain would meet the need for gas for a grand total of 18 months. It is only in the total absence of anything resembling a coherent strategy for energy that such a risky activity could be given the go-ahead for such short-term returns.

Meanwhile, the National Union of Mineworkers has warned that tiny collieries like the one at Gleision where four miners died as a result of an inrush of water, may be operating “under the radar” of mine inspectors. The soaring world price of coal has led to an expansion of small, privately-owned drift and open cast mining in the UK over recent years – operations that sometimes open and shut in response to commodity price fluctuations.

Gleision, which produced smokeless coal for boilers, is one of the smallest and remotest of these kinds of laissez-faire operations. Chris Kitchen, general secretary of the NUM, said: "We have grave concerns about safety standards in these kinds of mines. We fear that safety is often set at minimum standards so that costs can be kept down. They are not generally unionised or easily visited by inspectors."

Britain's five remaining deep-mine collieries, such as Kellingley in Yorkshire, have teams of safety personnel, high standards, and a unionised workforce alert to problems. "You are not going to have that kind of thing in a small drift mine that employs nine people."

As the Energy Bill currently going through Parliament shows, the reality is that government efforts to promote energy saving and efficiency, or local power generation strategies and clean sources, are minimal. The scale of what they plan – lots of advice and fine words but little funding or subsidy – shows they are not serious.

As long as we live in this undemocratic profit-driven energy society, the government will make sure the energy corporations keep the market sewn up. Only by challenging the ownership and control of energy production will we ever be able to put the focus on safety, clean energy and conservation.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

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