My Times column on the environmental effects of
fracking and wind power:
It was the American senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once
said: “You are entitled to your opinions, but not to your own
facts.” In the debate over shale gas – I refuse to call it the
fracking debate since fracking has been happening in this country
for decades – the opponents do seem to be astonishingly cavalier
with the facts.
Here are five things that they keep saying which are just not
true. First, that shale gas production has polluted aquifers in the
United States. Second, that it releases more methane than other
forms of gas production. Third, that it uses a worryingly large
amount of water. Fourth, that it uses hundreds of toxic chemicals.
Fifth, that it causes damaging earthquakes.
The total number of aquifers that have been found to be polluted
by either fracking fluid or methane gas as a result of fracking in
the United States is zero. Case after case has been alleged and
found to be untrue. The Environmental Protection Agency closed its investigation at Dimock, in
Pennsylvania, concluding there was no evidence of contamination;
abandoned its claim that drilling in Parker County, Texas, had
caused methane gas to come out of people’s taps; and withdrew its
allegations of water contamination at Pavilion in Wyoming for lack
of evidence. Two recent peer-reviewed studies concluded that
groundwater contamination from fracking is “
not physically plausible.”
The movie Gasland showed a case of entirely natural gas
contamination of water and the director knew it, but he still
pretended it might have been caused by fracking. Ernest Moniz, the
US Energy Secretary, said earlier this month: “I still have not
seen any evidence of fracking per se contaminating groundwater.”
Tens of thousands of wells drilled, two million fracking operations
completed and not a single proven case of groundwater
contamination. Not one. It may happen one day, of course, but
there’s few industries that can claim a pollution record that
Next comes the claim that shale gas production results in more
methane release to the atmosphere and hence could be as bad for
climate change as coal. (Methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas
than carbon dioxide, but stays in the atmosphere for a shorter time
and its concentration is not currently rising fast.) This claim
originated with a Cornell biology professor with an axe to grind.
Study after study has refuted it. As a team from Massachusetts
Institute of Technology put it: “It is incorrect to suggest that shale
gas-related hydraulic fracturing has substantially altered the
overall [greenhouse gas] intensity of natural gas production.”
Third comes the claim that fracking uses too much water. The
Guardian carried a report this week implying that a town in Texas
is running dry because of the water used for fracking. Yet in Texas
1% of water use is for fracking, in the United States as a whole 0.3% — less than
is used by golf courses. If parts of Texas run out of water, blame
farming, by far the biggest user.
Fourth, the ever-so-neutral BBC in a background briefing this
week described fracking as releasing “hundreds of chemicals” into
the rock. Out by an order of magnitude, Auntie. Fracking fluid is
99.51% water and sand. In the remaining 0.49% there are just 13 chemicals, all of which can
be found in your kitchen, garage or bathroom: citric acid (lemon
juice), hydrochloric acid (swimming pools), glutaraldehyde
(disinfectant), guar (ice cream), dimethylformamide (plastics),
isopropanol (deodorant), borate (hand soap); ammonium persulphate
(hair dye); potassium chloride (intravenous drips), sodium
carbonate (detergent), ethylene glycol (de-icer), ammonium
bisulphite (cosmetics), petroleum distillate (cosmetics).
As for earthquakes, Durham University’s definitive survey of all
induced earthquakes over many decades concluded that “almost all of
the resultant seismic activity [from fracking] was on such a small
scale that only geoscientists would be able to detect it” and that
mining, geothermal activity or reservoir water storage causes more
and bigger tremors.
The media has done a poor job of challenging the Frack Off
rent-a-celeb mob with such factual rebuttals. So the debate is not
between two sincerely held but opposite arguments; it is an unequal
contest between truth and lies. No wonder honest folk like the
residents of Balcombe are frightened.
Now it appears that the Diocese of Blackburn has circulated a
leaflet about how fracking “has lured landowners to sign leases to
drill on their land” and that it could cause lasting harm to “God’s
glorious Creation”. Hang on, bishop [update: apparently there is no
bishop in place in the Blackburn diocese at the moment. So: “Hang
on, reverends”]. Did you say the same thing about wind power? Let’s
run a quick comparison.
Luring landowners with money: wind farms pay up to £100,000 per
turbine to landowners and most of that money comes from additions
to ordinary people’s electricity bills. What has the church to say
Spoiling God’s glorious creation: as Clive Hambler of Oxford
University has documented, each year between 6m and 18m
birds and bats are killed in Spain alone by wind turbines,
including rare griffon vultures, 400 of which were killed in one
year, and even rarer Egyptian vultures. In Tasmania wedge-tailed
eagles are in danger of extinction because of wind turbines.
Norwegian wind farms kill ten white-tailed eagles each year. German
wind turbines kill 200,000 bats a year, many of which have migrated
hundreds of miles.
The wind industry, which is immune from prosecution for wildlife
crime, counters that far more birds are killed by cars and cats and
likes to point to a spurious calculation that if the climate gets
very warm and habitats change then the oil industry could one day
be said to have killed off many birds. But when was the last time
your cat brought home an Imperial Eagle or a needle-tailed swift?
Says Dr Hambler: “Climate change won’t drive those species to
extinction; well-meaning environmentalists might.”
[Here’s a video of a vulture hitting a turbine
blade in Crete.]
Wind turbines are not only far more conspicuous than gas
drilling rigs, but cover vastly more area. Just ten hectares (25
acres) of oil or gas drilling pads can produce more energy that the
entire British wind industry. Which does the greatest harm to God’s
glorious creation, rev?
Wind provided about 1% of our total energy last year. Last
weekend I drove from Caithness to Northumberland. View after view
was spoiled by the spinning monsters: alongside the Pentland Firth,
above Dornoch, in the Monadliaths, in the Lammermuirs, in the
Cheviots, on Simonside. I was looking at maybe one-tenth of one
percent of all our energy production and an even smaller impact on
our carbon emissions. Trivial benefit; vast cost.
You see, in criticizing wind power on environmental grounds, you
do not even need to lie. The truth is shocking enough.