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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Black propaganda

The BBC has plumbed new depths with its recent reporting on shale gas. Its reporter Richard Black wrote a story about the old Cornell University claim that shale gas production emits more greenhouse-warming gases than coal. I happen to know quite a bit about this study and I know that it is based on very extreme and highly implausible assumptions shared by nobody outside a narrow group of partisans. I also know that it is very, very easy for a journalist to find this out and then at least to mention that there are two sides to the story. Yet nowhere in the entire piece does Black even mention that this study is disputed. As reporting goes, that's truly disgraceful, and I for one will never trust a story from Black again.

So here are a few things he should have told you about the other side of the story, from Energy in Depth, a source that is about as partisan as the BBC.

The author of the study, Robert Howarth, is an evolutionary biologist with no expertise in energy and with a track record of campaigning actively against shale gas. Nothing wrong with that, but it should be mentioned.

The first version of the study had to be humiliatingly withdrawn when Howarth realised he had assumed that no methane leaked from coal mines.

The study depends on assuming that methane's global warming potential is 105 times that of carbon dioxide, `far greater than IPCC's recommendation of 72 over a 20-year period, and a staggering 320 percent higher than IPCC's 100-year benchmark of 25. (IPCC Fourth Assessment Report [AR4], table 2.14,  2007)'.

Howarth has admitted: "Let me just as an aside say that, again, the quality of the data behind that number [methane emissions during well completion] are pretty lousy. You know, they're these weird PowerPoint sort of things."

Howarth takes his figures for leaked gas from published reports of `lost and unaccounted for gas'. But this is not necessarily leaked gas. `The reality, as detailed in the very article they cite in their study (but ignored), is in fact quite different. It's an accounting issue.'

So, in other words, shale gas has greater global warming potential than coal only if you rely on lousy data, misunderstood accounting categories, quadrupled assumptions about methane's relative greenhouse potential -- and then only in the short term, when people like Black are always telling us it is the long term we should worry about.

Truly, is Black not even slightly embarrassed that he has allowed his reporting to be hijacked by a narrow agenda of a particular environmental lobby, rather than doing some actual reporting? I thought the BBC had a claim to be balanced.

There is a parallel here. What is happening to shale gas is exactly what happened to GM crops in Europe in 1998. A vigorous and swift campaign by the green movement to raise any doubts they could (and any funds they could -- opposing things is how they fill their gigantic budgets, remember), no matter how dodgy the evidence (remember Arpad Puzstai), put the entire technology on the back foot.

Meanwhile, reasonable people were left muttering: well, I suppose we should be cautious and not jump into this till we have looked at the evidence. Black quotes one to exactly this effect in his shale gas article:

"I suspect the debate on this will be long, and the answers will be different for each shale gas formation; but it is important that we tackle this debate."

In the GM case the lies were half way around the world before the truth had its boots on. The result: the destruction of an entire research tradition, the loss of environmental benefits that demonstrably flow from GM crops, the revival of the pesticide industry, the enrichment of a lot of enviuronmentalists and a competitive disadvantage for a major European industry. Now, 13 years later, I know I was wrong to stand on the sidelines of that debate at first. Too late.

Of course there are issues that need top be raised about shale gas's environmental impact. But they need to be raised fairly.

Disclosure: I have an indirect financial interest in the coal industry, so the premature strangulation of the shale gas industry at birth would be good for me. I therefore have the opposite of a vested interest in what I have written here.