Friday, 2 August 2013

Shale in your underpants : a very personal take on fracking

part of a reply to a local resident concerned about fracking in Oxfordshire . . .

You will not be surprised to learn that the Green Party does NOT support fracking, nor even exploratory drilling that might lead to it.

Different members of the party might come to this same conclusion from a differing prioritisation of concerns. For six years (in the 1970s) I was a graduate mining engineer, working latterly as a coalface deputy in the Midlands coalfield -- which extends under Oxford.  I have had a very personal relationship with the shale measures that overlie the coal, precisely because it 'fracks' --it is friable -- it breaks, falls in lumps on your head, and turns into a mush of slippery fragments that go down the back of your neck and lodge in your underpants!  But the methane that they release was also a major hazard -- indeed, a major underground fire cause by spontaneous combustion was responsible for the permanent closure of Britain's largest remaining coal mine (Daw Mill, in Warwickshire) not so long ago.  (Something, I have to say, that would never been allowed to happen under National Coal Board management.  It was incompetence and corner-cutting).

I'm not sure what the depth of the coal measures under Oxford is.  In South Warwickshire, it's about 350 metres, and coal extraction leads to surface subsidence and small fissures that extend to the surface.  (A major problem on the coal face was that once the shale roof broke, the shale would shatter and run out of the hole like sand through an egg-timer, leaving cavernous spaces that had to be shored up with timber -- a highly dangerous operation, since the hole would be full of methane, and always liable to further collapse).  Although fracking doesn't involve the extraction of 3 metre thick strata as coal extraction does it is a new technology.  I don't know what the borehole pressures are and doubt whether there is any reliable means of monitoring how far the induced fractures extend.  It is clear from some shocking examples in the United States that the chemical/sand slurry -- and methane gas, too -- gets into aquifers.

Fracking requires multiple boreholes -- we're talking hundreds, not one or two -- and each site (which may support a dozen boreholes going in different directions I believe) will require the delivery of large quantities of toxic chemicals and the removal of toxic waste slurry.  I haven't heard how it is proposed to get the gas into the gas grid -- whether it will mean hundreds of miles of gas pipelines or compressors on site running 24 hours, and more heavy vehicles.

For myself, the priority arguments are :

that it is trying to stave off the inevitable -- we know we have to get on to renewables and the time to do that is now.  Fracking is an enormous distraction, takes our eye off the ball and (with its promise of quick profits) undermines much-needed investment in renewables technology.  It is true that in the next few years a number of our nuclear power stations will be reaching the end of their lives, leaving the Grid with a big hole in baseload supply -- so I can understand why energy ministers are concerned.  But this is absolutely not the way to do it.  They need to be ramping up the drive for renewable energy, and this is sapping that motivation.

It is unproven technology -- which in itself would not be a problem were it not for the fact that the evidence we are seeing from existing sites around the world is alarming with regard to the release of methane gas to atmosphere and pollution of aquifers -- 143 cases in the US alone.  Given that potable water is in a few years going to be an even more precious resource than oil, the risks involved are immense.  I do not believe a well borehole, once the fracking process has begun, can be reliably sealed because of hidden surface fissures.

The surface operations will not be benign.  They will involve hundreds of truck movements of toxic chemicals and slurry, gas flares night and day, construction of pipelines and a lot of leakage of methane around the site.  Methane in a concentration of 9% with oxygen is as explosive as TNT.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Pernicious Government Bill to create destitution

Home Office minister Theresa May has launched a government consultation on a Bill to criminalise landlords who house people who don’t have papers entitling them to live in the UK. (link opens in a new window).

This government is well to the right of anything Thatcher ever did.  If they get their policies through, ‘illegals’ and their families (remember, many have been working and paying tax here for many years) will have

  • no right to work (employers are already criminalised for employing them)
  • no right to housing (landlords will be criminalised)
  • no health care ‘free at point of use’, and
  • no legal aid (that’s already gone, this April).

The theory is that this will discourage (new) illegal immigration, though quite how that’s supposed to work I don’t know.  Trouble is, in the present political climate, who’s going to stand up for ‘illegal immigrants’?

But at the end of the day, these are real people with a multitude of different stories to tell.  They’re more likely to be working, they use the health services much less than most, and areas with the largest migrant population also have lower levels of unemployment of native-born residents than areas where they are fewer - so it’s not true that ‘they take our jobs’.  If anything, the evidence is the reverse.

We need mass civil disobedience on this one : make it unworkable.  Remember the Poll Tax -- and that wasn’t nearly as pernicious.  The only difference is that that affected the vast majority, whereas this affects only a small group of vulnerable people who everyone has been taught to hate.  Sound familiar?

Monday, 17 June 2013

Referendum on Europe is subversion of democracy

Does a majority of the UK population feel so strongly about our EU membership that they consider it a matter for a referendum?  Has that even been tested?  I think it is a small minority who are agitating for this -- backed by the Daily Express and Daily Mail who maintain a daily barrage of misinformation about the issue -- and the only reason it has got this far is because of Conservative party self-interest.  The Prime Minister doesn't want it, I think : the only reason he's promoting it is to prevent votes going to the xenophobe parties, knowing how vulnerable he is both personally within his party and how vulnerable his party is in the next election owing to its mismanagement of the economy. Neither of these things really has anything to do with the EU as such.

As I understand it, the Green Party believes in subsidiarity.  Some aspects of our life absolutely must be politically organised at European level -- for instance, preventing capital exploiting differential rates of pay, unemployment benefits, working conditions and environmental standards by working to bring these into line across the continent.  No responsible party -- least of all one whose political philosophy starts with the environment -- has any business entertaining 'little-Englanders' like this.  At the same time we need Area Committees, local currencies -- decision-making as close to the ground as possible.  It cannot be an either/or decision.  Such a 'Yes/No' referendum is thoroughly irresponsible because the answer cannot be 'yes' or 'no'.  It has to be a constant negotiation of the boundaries of what is to be decided locally as opposed to European wide.  Every bit of European legislation that the Express and Mail sound off about, claiming that the "Brussels bureaucrats" are issuing diktats and imposing foreign rule (at least, every bit of legislation that I've followed up) is not imposed but proposed, and has to be first adopted and implemented by our own government.  More often than not (I suspect) it is -- because it's sensible and in the UK's interests.  Partly because UK representatives have been there influencing its formation from the outset.

I understand that to oppose a referendum sounds like opposing democracy, but the primary vehicle for democracy is our party political electoral system.  Referenda bypass this.  The only justification for a referendum (it seems to me) is that the issue in question is not party political and therefore cannot be decided that way.

In which case, why have we not had a referendum on capital punishment?  Should the Greens not be supporting that (because I reckon there would be a lot more public support for a referendum on that issue).  Has there ever been a free vote on Europe in Parliament?

Surely, this issue absolutely is party political -- and what's more, narrowly within the right wing of the political spectrum.  A vociferous minority are effectively attempting to hijack our democracy in arguing for a referendum, and we shouldn't be supporting them.  We should be nailing them for trying to subvert our democratic system.

Nor should Cameron : he needs to stop faffing about and take his chances on telling it how it is instead of letting UKIP dictate the terms of engagement in their spat.

a colleague has added :

I think asking for a referendum on the grounds that no-one under 55 has had a chance to vote for membership of the EU is like asking us to vote whether we want an NHS or not on the grounds that only those over 98 years old would have been able to vote whether they wanted it.

which prompts me to add :

. . . and in the year when we celebrate the birth of the Suffragette movement, arguing for a referendum on the rights of women to vote, given that no man currently alive was able to vote for it.

I remember, thirty years ago now, asking a church member in her twenties if she was going to vote, and when she scoffed at the idea reminding her that women gave their lives for her right to do so.  To which her reply was (the shock of it still sticks in my mind) "Well, I didn't ask them to."

Friday, 8 February 2013

Same-Sex Marriage Bill isn't : it's 'Marriage Lite'

In presenting the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill to Parliament on Tuesday, Maria Miller (Minister for Women & Equalities) said "Parliament should value people equally in the law, and enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current differentiation and distinction". Which, in my opinion, would be great. Except it doesn't : the Bill embodies a very significant distinction, creating a new 'marriage-lite' within the Marriage Act.

Most people in this country would, I think, understand 'marriage' to mean a partnership in which each partner willingly agrees to henceforth 'forsake all others' when it comes to sexual relationships. Sexual partnership is generally understood to be at its centre, and same-sex partnerships are just as much sexual partnerships as any other. But not according to this Bill.

It's true that we Britons tend to go in for 'serial monogamy' these days, in which one exclusive sexual partnership is succeeded by another. It's true that young people explore (as young people always have) one-to-one erotic relationships without commitment before settling down with one partner. It's true that many people live in committed partnerships "forsaking all others" without ever going through the legal formalities of marriage or even declaring it publicly. And it's true that, through human weakness, many people fail to live up to the ideal of an exclusive sexual partnership "forsaking all others". But that 'marriage' is the ideal, the model, I have no doubt -- and that is why it is right that same-sex couples should have the right to cement such marriages legally. We don't generally go in for polygamy in this country, and even those few couples who choose to have 'open marriages' (i.e. they declare that they do not expect their partner to 'forsake all others' sexually) are conscious that they are bucking the trend.

But for some reason I can't fathom, this Bill exempts same-sex marriages from sexual exclusivity. Adultery will not be grounds for divorce. Challenged on this, Maria Miller said that 'unreasonable behaviour' remains as a ground for divorce, so adulterous behaviour is covered anyway -- as unreasonable behaviour. But exempting adultery clearly implies that, for same-sex partnerships at least, it is 'not unreasonable' - it's permitted, exempted! Same-sex marriages would be, by legal definition, 'open marriages' -- which, by most people's reckoning would mean 'not marriages at all'.

I'm sure most married same-sex couples would understand that they have committed themselves to a sexually exclusive partnership, but legally they won't have. They'll have been short-changed, and will be living 'marriage-lite' in the eyes of the law.

Eight MPs picked this up and challenged it in the debate, but the Minister for Culture, Media & Sport Hugh Robertson, in summing up the debate made no reference to it. (Had Maria Miller left the chamber? Had Hugh Robertson even been present for most of the debate?) I sincerely hope that the clause in question (Schedule 4 Part 3) gets struck out in the revising stages.

I've written about this -- and why it is important -- more fully on my other blog.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Public displays of drunkenness : Heresy?

Yesterday (Jan 1st) Radio 4 thought it would be fun to have a go at the political correctness of those who disapprove of public drunkenness. Comedian Mark Steel described the experience of being totally drunk in public as "marvellous, enjoyable and fun", and other panellists described the fun time they'd had throwing up advocaat over the doorman when arriving at The Dorchester on Park Lane, or being too drunk to work at their journalism job in Fleet Street.

I went up to university a year early -- to the Royal School of Mines. Pretty much an all-male institution then, at which the ability to sink 12 pints of Tartan bitter before a meal (as a beer enthusiast I still remember, with shame, how appalling that stuff was) was more or less a requirement if you wanted to get the degree. I don't ever remember being incapably drunk as being 'marvellous, enjoyable and fun' : I do remember being hospitalised three times through being assaulted by fellow drunks, and I remember how deeply unpleasant it was being awake all night throwing up. Call me a spoil-sport, but it's not how I remember it. I do remember with fondness the camaraderie of going pub-crawling, but I reckon I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd known when to stop.

If people want to get horribly drunk at a private party I guess that's up to them, but the point of this discussion was about what happens in public. And the one thing that no speaker dared to mention was what the impact on 'the public' of public drunkenness is, especially since the change in the licensing laws. I guess there always was violence associated with heavy drinking - it goes with the territory, as does vandalism, rape, serious accidents and all the other things that clog up A&E departments and courts, and tie up enormous police resources. (To say nothing of the price paid by people who succumb to alcoholism and their families -- it's a more pernicious drug than heroin.) The difference now is that, whereas in my youth the storm had mostly blown over by midnight, now it's all happening between 2:00 and 6:00 in the morning when most people are wanting to sleep.

I'm currently a city councillor in East Oxford : a vibrant place full of young people of course, but also many families and elderly residents. It has a thriving night life, too. But 'public displays of drunkenness' through the night create utter misery for many residents who feel powerless to do anything to stop their broken nights, three or four times a week, and the piles of vomit and discarded fast food rubbish the following morning are a depressing sight. The residents I speak to would mostly not have a big problem with it all if it weren't for the fact it's all happening at 3:00 in the morning.

The presumption of the programme was that the prevailing culture of our time disapproves of this kind of excess, but that's not what it feels like. The pressure on young people to drink to excess is immense and remorseless. Bringing closing time earlier would be fiercely resisted as an assault on people's human rights. Just as it would have been virtually impossible for me to stay within my alcohol limits when I was at college, so it would be a brave 'heretic' that managed to hold out today.

This part of the 'Heretics' programme, I'm afraid, got it badly wrong. There was absolutely nothing funny about it. A real heretic would have ridiculed the 'lets-all-get-bladdered' culture -- but would they have managed to get any laughs out of that, or would it have been too difficult to do it without appearing moralistic? That difficulty, I'd have thought, would have been a better indication that they were being genuinely 'heretical'.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Displays of religious devotion in the Council chamber

The deputy leader of the LibDem group on Oxford City Council tabled the following question to the Leader at Monday's meeting :

Should all local authorities follow Oxford City's example and avoid requiring councillors to participate in often hypocritical displays of religious devotion?

I couldn't hear the mumbled answer, but presumably it was affirmative because the questioner replied with a hearty "Amen".

Some weeks earlier, I'd had a conversation with a minister colleague who grew up in a Presbyterian minister's household, subsequently became a Roman Catholic and is now an Anglican priest. She had said she found my Reformed tradition (Presbyterian is 'Reformed') to be lacking in 'spirituality', and I think this is quite a common feeling. Reformed worship is, on the surface, extremely passive. The only point where the congregation 'displays' anything is in the singing of hymns.

I found myself reflecting that at its birth, the Reformed Churches were themselves reacting against the imposition of religious 'display'. They refused to kneel to pray or receive communion; out went genuflecting, lighting of candles, kissing of icons -- the value of religion was in the inward disposition not the outward display. Equally important were the rights of personal conviction and religious tolerance. England had seen enough of people being persecuted for not saying creeds or 'displaying' their religion as decreed by the State. With this went the conviction that the power of religious institutions needed to be separated from the power of government.

So what my colleague perceives as a 'lack of spirituality' is actually a strong statement of religious freedom, an awareness of the ever-present possibility of hypocrisy, and an awareness of how outward display can be a tool of oppression.

Next time my councillor colleague is sitting in the Council chamber saying nothing and making no gestures, should I interpret this as a display of religious devotion? Or as a refusal to participate in such?

Monday, 12 December 2011

God Rest Ye Merry Money-Men

A little broadsheet ballad for the 2011 Christmas season :

God rest you merry money-men; let nothing you dismay :
remember that our government will not stand in your way.
However much you foul it up you'll still get bonus pay

. . . so it's tidings of comfort and joy for Bullingdon Boys, (1)
yes it's tidings of comfort and joy!

You've got the politicians tamed like monkeys in a zoo;
Besides, an awful lot of them are wheeler-dealers too!
You're "all in it together" — so there's little we can do.

. . . but it's tidings of comfort and joy for Bullingdon Boys,
yes it's tidings of comfort and joy!

If tax is inconvenient there is no need to shout.
Your Man in Inland Revenue will help you sort it out
with dodgy deals in Switzerland — the tax-avoider's tout.

. . . yes, it's tidings of comfort and joy for Bullingdon Boys,
yes it's tidings of comfort and joy!

You had an anxious moment when an obstacle you dread —
tighter European regulation — raised its head,
but Cuddly Dave has gone and got you off the hook instead

. . . so it's tidings of comfort and joy for Bullingdon Boys,
yes it's tidings of comfort and joy!

So Christmas has come early for financiers one and all.
Mervyn King can fulminate but, safe in marble halls(2)
the one per cent can celebrate; the rest go to the wall

. . . and it's tidings of comfort and joy for Bullingdon Boys
yes it's tidings of comfort and joy!

Dick Wolff

(1) the Bullingdon Club : an élite Oxford University drinking and dining club in which the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Mayor of London were contemporaries

(2) an old music hall ballad : "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls, with vassals and serfs at my side; and of all who assembled within those walls, that I was the hope and the pride."