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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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Time to start fracking

Opposition to shale gas is a storm in a teacup

The Times has published my op-ed on shale gas:

It is now official: drilling for shale gas by fracturing rock with water may rattle the odd teacup, but is highly unlikely to cause damaging earthquakes. That much has been obvious to anybody who has followed the development of the shale gas industry in America over the past ten years. More than 25,000 wells drilled have caused a handful of micro-seismic events that can barely be felt.

The two rumbles that resulted from drilling a well near Blackpool last year were tiny. To call a two-magnitude tremor an earthquake is a bit like calling a hazelnut lunch. Such tremors happen naturally more than 15 times a year but go unnoticed and they are a common consequence of many other forms of underground work such as coalmining and geothermal drilling. Earthquakes caused by hydroelectric projects, in which dams load the crust and lubricate faults, can be much greater and more damaging. The Sichuan earthquake that killed 90,000 in 2008 was probably caused by a dam.

So can we now get on and start a home-grown shale gas industry? The economic and environmental benefits could be vast. Just consider the effect that shale gas has had in the US. It has lowered the price of gas to a quarter of that in Europe, thus slashing the cost of energy, reviving manufacturing, creating jobs, halting the expansion of expensive nuclear power and cutting carbon emissions.

The Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science concluded in February that the surprise fall in America's carbon emissions - by 7 per cent in 2009, probably more since - was caused largely by a switch from coal to shale gas. "A slight shift in the relative prices of coal and natural gas can result in a sharp drop in carbon emissions," according to Professor Michael McElroy, who led the study. All over America coal and nuclear projects are being cancelled or mothballed because of cheap gas. (Declaration of non-interest: I have interests in coalmining; so shale gas is bad news for me, but good news for the country and the planet.) Yet listening to the debate in Britain about "fracking", you would think that we were in a different universe. Tony Juniper, the BBC's favourite green, was arguing yesterday that shale gas might increase carbon emissions because of leakage of methane into the atmosphere. His evidence? A study by Cornell University that has been discredited. Not only was the study partly funded by an anti-fracking pressure group called the Park Foundation but it also made a series of elementary howlers, such as using a cherry-picked short time frame because methane does not stay in the air for long and mistaking Russian theft of gas from pipelines for leakage.

Besides, the proof of the pudding is in the data: shale gas has already cut carbon emissions in a way that wind, biomass and solar power have failed to do. Wind still produces less than 0.5 per cent of all energy and has displaced no fossil fuels. Biomass has been shown to increase carbon emissions, by encouraging deforestation. And solar power, for all its local promise in desert countries, is still an irrelevance globally and a boondoggle nationally.

What about groundwater contamination? This too is mostly hogwash. Since there is usually a mile of rock between aquifers and where the fracking happens, contamination from fracking is highly implausible. More than 25,000 wells have been sunk and there has only been a handful of potential contamination events, most of which proved to be natural. Of course, failure of the well casing or surface chemical spills can happen occasionally, as in any industry. But the chemicals used in fracking - less than 0.5 per cent of the solution used to displace the gas - are ordinary chemicals of the kind that you find under your kitchen sink: disinfectants, surfactants and the like.

The campaign to stop shale gas proving its case in the market is political, not scientific. Behind it lies vested interests. The Russian gas industry, which is alarmed at losing its impending near-monopoly on European gas supplies, has been vocal in its criticism of shale gas. The coal and nuclear industries too would like to see this baby strangled at birth, but have been less high-profile.

Most of the opposition, though, has come from those with a vested interest in renewable energy, including the big environmental pressure groups, which are alarmed that the rich subsidies paid to wind, biomass and solar may be under threat if gas gets too cheap and cuts carbon emissions too effectively. Their entire rationale for subsidy, parroted by their dutiful poodle Chris Huhne, when Energy Secretary, is that gas would get more expensive until even wind and solar looked cheap. That was wishful thinking.

Even if you do not think carbon emissions are the highest environmental priority, there is a more fundamental reason why using gas is good for the planet. No other species needs or uses it. Every time you grow a biofuel crop, harvest timber for a biomass power station, pave a desert with solar panels or dam a river for a hydro plant, you are stealing energy from the natural world. Even the wind is needed - by eagles for soaring, by bats for feeding (both are regularly killed by wind turbines). As the only species that uses gas, the more we use it the more we can leave other sources of energy for nature.