Thursday, 22 August 2013

"Fracking may harm God's work" says bishop

According to The Times today, Roman Catholic bishop John Arnold, who coincidentally happens to have Balcombe, the village in Sussex where the current furore is taking place, in his diocese, is against fracking. Rather, he is quoted as saying that the subject raises many questions, which is enough to ingratiate himself with his flock while keeping his options open.  But the clear message was one of disapproval without any factual support or analysis. Don't misunderstand me, I am not against the bishop or any other of the great and the good either taking sides or sitting on the fence.  But this is an example of the conspiracy that exists between those who want publicity and the press who are all too keen to provide it, especially if it is alarmist or salacious, to avoid addressing the issues at all for fear of their being too difficult.  For in this case, for all the words that have been written over the last couple of months, how much wiser is the public about what the issues actually are?

Let's use the bishop's comments as a jumping off point (I repeat I don't have anything against him in particular but the article just happens to have driven me to this post).  He is concerned apparently above all with two things:
1.  "stewardship of God's creation" (I assume he is referring to the planet we live on); and
2.  duty towards the poorest in our community, struggling with fuel poverty.  
Now these two issues are important but they hardly explain the dilemma that mankind faces at the moment, leaving aside the reference to God's role in all of this (a topic for another post).  In fact they are not even put in a way that suggests that they may be diametrically opposed objectives; they merely incite concerns.
Is this the bishop's fault for settling on a few sound bites, or the newspaper's for failing to relay his comprehensive analysis of the mankind's dilemma in addressing fuel poverty (lets assume he means globally and not just in West Sussex) and Greenhouse gas production?  

What we could do with is some sensible debate and hard facts so that people can make up their own minds, not half-baked and disingenuous remarks from politicians, protestors and bishops, or anyone else who wants to get the media's attention, and therefore ours, for a few minutes.  Perhaps the "quality" papers could be relied upon to provide some.

Now having got your attention, here are my own thoughts, mixed with what I believe and hope are some relevant facts that rarely make it to the light of day.

  • From a moral perspective we are all undoubtedly guardians, or trustees, of this planet for future generations.  But we also have a moral responsibility to those alive today who do not have the energy, and the benefits of the energy-dependent economy that we have in the west.  The USA and Europe are each responsible for around 40% of the world's energy consumption and our hunger for fuel prices the majority of the worlds population out of the market.  What the west can do is:
    a) consume less energy; and
    b) support science and technology to generate more efficient energy usage and new sustainable sources of power.
    Both of these cost money that consumers in the West must end up paying for.    
  • Demand for energy will none the less increase dramatically over the next 30 - 50 years as the world population reaches 9 or 12 billion (I did not hear the bishop, or the anti-frackers, calling for birth control, but this could be one part of the solution).  
  • Renewables should be an increasingly significant contributor but we cannot grow them fast enough to meet the additional demand, so even with the unlikely universal acceptance of nuclear power, fossil fuels will play a significant part in meeting energy demand.
  • Given that we need fossil fuels, the question then becomes not whether but HOW to get them and to use them.  This is where we need the help of technical people, but the "antis" are so vociferous that they often prefer to keep their heads down and get on with their jobs, than to speak up.  
The options surely include the following:
a) move to cleaner sources of fossil fuels gas being one of them;
b) to do so in a technically competent and controlled/licensed way so that well-failures resulting in leakage of chemical and gas into aquifers, or sea-bed blow-outs such as BP's Macondo, are avoided at almost all cost (if I understand correctly where drinking water has been polluted in the US it has been the result of cowboy (literally?) drilling and poor methodology and management, but it would be good to have the facts); and
c) where we do use hydrocarbons, to deploy carbon capture to minimise greenhouse gases.

None of the above is free, or cheap, and at the end of the day will have to be paid for by the consumer, probably in the developed world.  Governments must bite the bullet, start to lead public opinion rather than to follow and develop genuine long-term sustainable policies.  And this particularly means the USA, not only the largest energy consumer in the world but who can set the benchmark through international agreements.  But which politicians have the guts to do this?  Not many is the answer to that.

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