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Here's an article I wrote for this week's Spectator about
UK energy policy. Wind must give way to gas before it ruins us all,
and our landscapes.
Which would you rather have in the view from your
house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers
twice the height of Nelson's column with blades noisily thrumming
the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar:
eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25%
capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale
gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first
Difficult choice? Let's make it easier. The gas well can be
hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be
on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for
up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons
marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground
Unpersuaded? Wind turbines slice thousands of birds of prey in
half every year, including white-tailed eagles in Norway, golden
eagles in California, wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania. There's a
video on Youtube of one winging a griffon vulture in Crete.
According to a study in Pennsylvania, a wind farm with eight
turbines would kill about a 200 bats a year. The pressure wave from
the passing blade just implodes the little creatures' lungs. You
and I can go to jail for harming bats or eagles; wind companies are
Still can't make up your mind? The wind farm requires eight
tonnes of an element called neodymium, which is produced only in
Inner Mongolia, by boiling ores in acid leaving lakes of
radioactive tailings so toxic no creature goes near them.
Not convinced? The gas well requires no subsidy - in fact it
pays a hefty tax to the government - whereas the wind turbines each
cost you a substantial add-on to your electricity bill, part of
which goes to the rich landowner whose land they stand on. Wind
power costs three times as much as gas-fired power. Make that nine
times if the wind farm is offshore. And that's assuming the cost of
decommissioning the wind farm is left to your children - few will
last 25 years.
Decided yet? I forgot to mention something. If you choose the
gas well, that's it, you can have it. If you choose the wind farm,
you are going to need the gas well too. That's because when the
wind does not blow you will need a back-up power station running on
something more reliable. But the bloke who builds gas turbines is
not happy to build one that only operates when the wind drops, so
he's now demanding a subsidy, too.
What's that you say? Gas is running out? Have you not heard the
news? It's not. Till five years ago gas was the fuel everybody
thought would run out first, before oil and coal. America was
getting so worried even Alan Greenspan told it to start building
gas import terminals, which it did. They are now being mothballed,
or turned into export terminals.
A chap called George Mitchell turned the gas industry on its
head. Using just the right combination of horizontal drilling and
hydraulic fracturing (fracking) - both well established
technologies -- he worked out how to get gas out of shale where
most of it is, rather than just out of (conventional) porous rocks,
where it sometimes pools. The Barnett shale in Texas, where
Mitchell worked, turned into one of the biggest gas reserves in
America. Then the Haynesville shale in Louisiana dwarfed it. The
Marcellus shale mainly in Pennsylvania then trumped that with a
barely believable 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, as big as any oil
field ever found, on the doorstep of the biggest market in the
The impact of shale gas in America is already huge. Gas prices
have decoupled from oil prices and are half what they are in
Europe. Chemical companies, which use gas as a feedstock, are
rushing back from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico. Cities
are converting their bus fleets to gas. Coal projects are being
shelved; nuclear ones abandoned.
Rural Pennsylvania is being transformed by the royalties that
shale gas pays (Lancashire take note). Drive around the hills near
Pittsburgh and you see new fences, repainted barns and - in the
local towns - thriving car dealerships and upmarket shops. The one
thing you barely see is gas rigs. The one I visited was hidden in a
hollow in the woods, invisible till I came round the last corner
where a flock of wild turkeys was crossing the road. Drilling rigs
are on site for about five weeks, fracking trucks a few weeks after
that, and when they are gone all that is left is a "Christmas tree"
wellhead and a few small storage tanks.
The International Energy Agency reckons there is quarter of a
millennium's worth of cheap shale gas in the world. A company
called Cuadrilla drilled a hole in Blackpool, hoping to find a few
trillion cubic feet of gas. Last month it announced 200 trillion
cubic feet, nearly half the size of the giant Marcellus field.
That's enough to keep the entire British economy going for many
decades. And it's just the first field to have been drilled.
Jesse Ausubel is a soft-spoken academic ecologist at Rockefeller
University in New York, not given to hyperbole. So when I asked him
about the future of gas, I was surprised by the strength of his
reply. "It's unstoppable," he says simply. Gas, he says, will be
the world's dominant fuel for most of the next century. Coal and
renewables will have to give way, while oil is used mainly for
transport. Even nuclear may have to wait in the wings.
And he is not even talking mainly about shale gas. He reckons a
still bigger story is waiting to be told about offshore gas from
the so-called cold seeps around the continental margins. Israel has
made a huge find and is planning a pipeline to Greece, to the
irritation of the Turks. The Brazilians are striking rich. The Gulf
of Guinea is hot. Even our own Rockall Bank looks promising.
Ausubel thinks that much of this gas is not even "fossil" fuel, but
ancient methane from the universe that was trapped deep in the
earth's rocks - like the methane that forms lakes on Titan, one of
The best thing about cheap gas is whom it annoys. The Russians
and the Iranians hate it because they thought they were going to
corner the gas market in the coming decades. The greens hate it
because it destroys their argument that fossil fuels are going to
get more and more costly till even wind and solar power are
competitive. The nuclear industry ditto. The coal industry will be
a big loser (incidentally, as somebody who gets some income from
coal, I declare that writing this article is against my vested
Little wonder a furious attempt to blacken shale gas's
reputation is under way, driven by an unlikely alliance of big
green, big coal, big nuclear and conventional gas producers. The
environmental objections to shale gas are almost comically
fabricated or exaggerated. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking uses
99.86% water and sand, the rest being a dilute solution of a few
chemicals of the kind you find beneath your kitchen sink.
State regulators in Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana,
Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming
have all asserted in writing that there have been no verified or
documented cases of groundwater contamination as a result of
hydraulic fracking. Those flaming taps in the film "Gasland"
were literally nothing to do with shale gas drilling and the film
maker knew it before he wrote the script. The claim that gas
production generates more greenhouse gases than coal is based on
mistaken assumptions about gas leakage rates and cherry-picked time
horizons for computing greenhouse impact.
Like Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle decades after the
war was over, our political masters have apparently not heard the
news. David Cameron and Chris Huhne are still insisting that the
future belongs to renewables. They are still signing contracts on
your behalf guaranteeing huge incomes to landowners and power
companies, and guaranteeing thereby the destruction of landscapes
and jobs. The government's "green" subsidies are costing the
average small business £250,000 a year. That's ten jobs per firm.
Making energy cheap is - as the industrial revolution proved - the
quickest way to create jobs; making it expensive is the quickest
way to lose them.
Not only are renewables far more expensive, intermittent and
resource-depleting (their demand for steel and concrete is
gigantic) than gas; they are also hugely more damaging to the
environment, because they are so land-hungry. Wind kills birds and
spoils landscapes; solar paves deserts; tidal wipes out the
ecosystems of migratory birds; biofuel starves the poor and
devastates the rain forest; hydro interrupts fish migration. Next
time you hear somebody call these "clean" energy, don't let him get
away with it.
Wind cannot even help cut carbon emissions, because it needs
carbon back-up, which is wastefully inefficient when powering up or
down (nuclear cannot be turned on and off so fast). Even Germany
and Denmark have failed to cut their carbon emissions by installing
vast quantities of wind.
Yet switching to gas would hasten decarbonisation. In a combined
cycle turbine gas converts to electricity with higher efficiency
than other fossil fuels. And when you burn gas, you oxidise four
hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. That's a better ratio than
oil, much better than coal and much, much better than wood. Ausubel
calculates that, thanks to gas, we will accelerate a relentless
shift from carbon to hydrogen as the source of our energy without
To persist with a policy of pursuing subsidized renewable energy
in the midst of a terrible recession, at a time when vast reserves
of cheap low-carbon gas have suddenly become available is so
perverse it borders on the insane. Nothing but bureaucratic inertia
and vested interest can explain it.