Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dirty gas gets the green light

As the government’s experts on renewable energy form a queue at the exit, the gas specialists are moving in, counting the zeros on their budgets. Dirty gas will get big tax breaks following George Osborne’s budget.

He wants big investment in “unconventional gas” to match the big money British banks have already invested in Canadian tar sands. These are huge deposits of bitumen, a tar-like substance that’s turned into oil through energy-intensive processes. 

Now a quarter of Scotland has been earmarked for drilling for gas to replace declining stocks from the North Sea. Companies will be invited to apply for licences next year. At the same time, the ban on fracking has been lifted.

The process involves drilling down and creating tiny explosions to shatter and crack hard shale rocks to release the gas inside. Cuadrilla, whose operations caused earthquakes in Blackpool, is back on site and ready to resume this dangerous dash for gas.

There is clear evidence from Australia and the United States, about the dangers of fracking. Water supplies have been contaminated with toxic chemicals that make people constantly ill, with the potential to cause cancer and even to change people’s gender.

The most advanced proposition is coal-bed methane capture. Australian corporation Dart Energy has already drilled 16 exploratory wells around Falkirk and Stirling. They have agreed a £300m deal to supply Scottish and Southern Electricity and plan to expand rapidly with at least 20 more wells in short order.

Campaign group Frack Off has raised serious questions about Dart’s operations. But the Scottish government led by the SNP has nothing to say – they smell they money, not the methane. So much for the promise that Scotland’s energy future lies in becoming the world leader in wind and tide!

Coal-bed methane extraction pumps water into the seam and gas bubbles through. But nobody seems to have planned what to do with the contaminated water. It’s the nuclear waste disposal story all over again.

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) will wait until companies apply to start work to examine the list of chemicals they plan to use. But fracking licences have already been issued in the south-west of Scotland and companies can simply move from exploration to production without any further discussion

Hundreds of objections from community groups and individuals are pouring in to SEPA. Network Rail is worried that wells drilled near the main line to the north might blow it up.

But these concerns are not high on the list of government priorities. It’s as if some ruthless Victorian coal owner travelled forward in time to take charge of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (causing it). It’s all back to the fossil fuel future for capitalism’s energy policy.

Chancellor Osborne, told a meeting in New York: "I see with admiration what has happened in the US in the way your shale gas revolution has made a contribution to GDP.”

In the interests of short-term profits governments will permit absolutely anything corporations propose. They know the dangers – they know about climate change – but remain paralysed by the economic and social changes needed to tackle it. And when a system can only move backwards, it is in terminal crisis.

So it’s over to us – we call on all those who want to defend the environment to form or join People’s Assemblies, popular forms of alternative government that can challenge the power of the corporations to befoul the land for profit and replace the governments, national or local, that facilitate them.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

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