Conflict in the UK

Aug. 23, 2013
In a rapidly developing conflict between public welfare and environmental obstinacy in the UK, obstinacy has won a round.

In a rapidly developing conflict between public welfare and environmental obstinacy in the UK, obstinacy has won a round. Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., under pressure from activists and on the advice of local police, on Aug. 16 announced suspension of drilling at a well in Balcombe, a village south of London. Police had warned of "direct action" by protestors against the company, which expressed concern for the safety of its employees, Balcombe residents, and its antagonists.

Environmentalists are targeting Cuadrilla because the company wants to assess shale-gas potential in northern England, where it has identified a resource of perhaps 200 tcf of gas in place. They warn, baselessly, of threats of cancer from frac chemicals and earthquakes. That the Balcombe project targeted oil in an old well that might never be fractured doesn't matter to environmentalists, who care little about such technicality. Cuadrilla "fracks," as they call the well-established technique, so it's an evil force that must be resisted wherever it works.

Cuadrilla's patience

Actually, Cuadrilla has acted with commendable patience and attention to community concerns. After its promising shale discovery in northern England, it delayed drilling by more than a year to accommodate private and governmental studies of the potential for induced earthquakes. It has been communicative of its plans and procedures. It's not an evil force.

Environmental activism nevertheless needs its demons. Environmental activism has no patience for the extravagances of adult discourse, such as facts and balance. Environmental activism simply asserts its own righteousness, shouts its slogans, and—when not promptly given its way—hits the barricades.

In the UK, activism is colliding with new governmental support for shale-gas development. Because Whitehall has pursued ambitious reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions with costly supports of nonfossil energy, the average household energy bill in the UK has increased during the past 3 years by 28%. According to news reports, the Uswitch price-monitoring group said nearly 7 in 10 households recently have gone without heating to lower energy costs.

The government has to act. Prime Minister David Cameron is adjusting policy to add shale gas to his list of preferred energy forms, which also includes offshore wind and nuclear power. He's deemphasizing onshore wind, which ironically has encountered local resistance.

After studies determined that seismicity caused by hydraulic fracturing wouldn't reach dangerous strength, the government last December ended a year-long moratorium on the practice. It's now studying tax incentives to encourage shale-gas development. Writing in The Daily Telegraph this month, Cameron put the issue in resonant perspective. "If we don't back this technology," he said, "we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive."

Cameron's comments contrast instructively with the rhetoric of provocateurs targeting Cuadrilla at Balcombe. "We are facing a climate crisis, economic crisis, and social crisis," declares the web site of No Dash for Gas, a group opposed to fossil energy that joined Balcombe residents protesting fracing with an Aug. 16-21 "action camp." It said, "We want a clean and fair future where people come before profit." In an invitation to join a march to the Cuadrilla wellsite on Aug. 18, it added: "Reclaim the power!"

Groups that resort to such juvenilia won't respond to facts about modern completion methods or the relative costs of various energy forms. They won't understand them. To the extent policy accommodates their crude agenda, they only obstruct work usually able, on balance, to serve general interests. And their members feel wonderful about themselves for doing so.

Unaffordable energy

When feel-good environmentalism prevails in politics, moreover, affordable energy that can be developed and used with imperfect yet manageable environmental consequence gets displaced by unaffordable energy. Activists never acknowledge that the unaffordable energy forms they want to force on everyone have environmental consequences, too.

The Balcombe protestors need to be reminded that windmills always generate unaffordable electricity and usually are nuisances—and that British winters are nearly always cold.