My article from The Critic:
The first coffee house in Marseilles opened in 1671, prompting the city’s vintners to recruit a couple of professors at the University of Aix to blacken their new competitor’s reputation. They duly got one of their students to write a pamphlet claiming coffee was a vile foreign novelty made from a tree favoured by goats and camels. It burned the blood, dried the kidneys and attracted the lymph, inducing palsies and impotence. “From all of which we must necessarily conclude that coffee is hurtful to the greater part of the inhabitants of Marseilles.”
Thus does novelty run up against vested interests. Today similar pseudoscience is used to blacken the reputation of almost any new development. Usually, as was the case with coffee, the campaign fails. But these days the anti-innovation forces have deep pockets and few scruples and have won some big battles. We now know that the opposition to genetically modified crops in Europe has resulted in more pesticide use than would otherwise have been the case, yet that opposition was very profitable for the big green pressure groups.
They fanned the flames of opposition, coining terms such as “Frankenfood”, and nimbly hopped from one fear to the next as each myth was busted: biotechnology was going to poison people, damage ecosystems, cause allergies, impoverish small farmers, boost corporate profits, and so on. They turned Monsanto into a pantomime villain and forced it to contemplate a strategy (making plants that could not breed true so the plants could not spread in the wild) that activists then criticised as a “terminator technology” designed to prevent small farmers saving seed, thus forcing them to rely on Monsanto.
Eventually, the issue lost its ability to yield donations and media interest, so the green business blob moved on. As Mark Lynas, a prominent anti-GM campaigner, now ruefully admits: “We permanently stirred public hostility to GMO foods throughout pretty much the entire world, and — incredibly — held up the previously unstoppable march of a whole technology. There was only one problem with our stunningly successful worldwide campaign. It wasn’t true.”
More than a decade later, environmentalists hit upon another money spinner: opposition to fracking. When the shale gas revolution first came along, some environmentalists welcomed it, and rightly so. It “creates an unprecedented opportunity to use gas as a bridge fuel to a twenty-first-century energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas,” wrote Senator Tim Wirth, a prominent environmentalist. And so it has proved: the country that adopted shale gas first and most — the United States — is the country that lowered its carbon dioxide emissions first and most, because gas displaced coal, a much higher-carbon fuel.
But then the vested interests got to work. Renewable energy promoters panicked at the thought of cheap and abundant gas. Their business model was predicated on the alleged certainty that prices would rise as fossil fuels ran out, making subsidised wind and solar power look comparatively cheap. David Cameron’s coalition government produced three projections about what might happen to gas prices: that they would rise fast, medium or slow. In fact they fell, a possibility the government had entirely ignored.
It is hard to recall now just how sure almost everybody was in 2008 that natural gas was running out. Its price had risen as gas fields in North America and the North Sea began to run dry. Peak gas was coming even sooner than peak oil or peak coal. Yet in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas, something was stirring. Engineer Nick Steinsberger, working for a company called Mitchell Energy, tried different ways to fracture shale rocks deep underground so that the gas would flow. Hydraulic fracturing had been invented the 1940s, generally using petroleum gels, but it did not work in shale, which contained an enormous amount of gas and oil. Nobody much minded you pumping gels down into rocks in those days. After all, the rocks themselves are — by definition — already soaked in toxic mixtures of oil and gas.
Steinsberger noticed water worked a bit better than gel. In 1998, he tried sending water down first, then some sand to prop open the cracks and — whoosh! — out came a lot of gas. And it kept on coming. “Slick-water fracking” had been invented, using far fewer chemicals than previous methods, allowing vast shale reserves around the world to be exploited.
Most experts said shale gas was a flash in the pan and would not much affect global supplies. They were wrong. By 2011 America’s declining gas output shot up and oil soon followed suit. The US has now overtaken Russia as the biggest gas producer in the world, and Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer. Cheap gas brought a stream of chemical companies rushing back from Europe and the Persian Gulf to manufacture in America. Gas import terminals were rebuilt as gas export terminals. The Permian basin in Texas alone now produces as much oil as the whole of the US did in 2008, and more than any Opec country except Iran and Saudi Arabia. This — not wind and solar which still provide only 2 per cent of world primary energy — is the big energy story of the past decade.
One country that should have taken sharp notice is Britain. As late as 2004 Britain was a gas exporter, but as North Sea production declined it rapidly became a big net importer, dependent on Norway, Qatar or Russia. As Britain was paying far more for its gas than America, that meant that our huge chemical industry was gradually moving out.
Fortunately, it then emerged that Britain has one of the richest and thickest seams of shale: the Bowland shale across Lancashire and Yorkshire contains many decades of supply. Fracking it would mean drilling small holes down about one mile, then cracking the rocks with millimetre-wide fractures and catching the gas as it flowed out over the next few decades. Experience in America showed this could be done without any risk of contaminating ground water, which is near the surface, or threatening buildings. The seismic tremors that have caused all the trouble are so slight they could not possibly do damage and were generally far smaller than those from mining, construction or transport. The well pads would be hundreds of times smaller than the concrete bases of wind farms producing comparable amounts of energy.
Still, friends of the earth, which is effectively a multinational environmental business, spotted a chance to make hay. Despite being told by the Advertising Standards Authority to withdraw misleading claims about shale gas, it kept up a relentless campaign of misinformation, demanding more delay and red tape from all-too-willing civil servants. The industry, with Cuadrilla fated to play the part of Monsanto, agreed to ridiculously unrealistic limits on what kinds of tremors they were allowed after being promised by the government that the limits would be changed later — a promise since broken. Such limits would stop most other industries, even road haulage, in their tracks.
The Russians also lobbied behind the scenes against shale gas, worried about losing their grip on the world’s gas supplies. Unlike most conspiracy theories about Russian meddling in Western politics, this one is out there in plain sight. The head of Nato, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said the Russians, as part of a sophisticated disinformation operation, “engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organisations — environmental organisations working against shale gas — to maintain Europe’s dependence on imported Russian gas”.
The Centre for European Studies found that the Russian government has invested $95 million in NGOs campaigning against shale gas. Russia Today television ran endless anti-fracking stories, including one that “frackers are the moral equivalent of paedophiles”. The US Director of National Intelligence stated that “RT runs anti-fracking programming … reflective of the Russian Government’s concern about the impact of fracking and US natural gas production on the global energy market and the potential challenges to Gazprom’s profitability.” Pro-Russian politicians such as Lord Truscott (married to a Russian army colonel’s daughter) made speeches in parliament against fracking.
No scare story was too far-fetched to be taken up and amplified. Tap water would catch fire (no: though it’s a natural phenomenon in some places in America where gas naturally contaminates ground water). There would be significant gas leaks (no: there are more gas leaks from natural sources and pipelines). The water that comes out of the well is dangerously radioactive (no: it is not). Fracking uses a lot of water (a lot less than farming). And so on. The unelected quangocracy that runs these things on behalf of taxpayers, mainly in the form of the Environment Agency, appeared at times to be taking its instructions directly from Friends of the Earth. So, of course, did the BBC.
The endless delays imposed by regulators played into the hands of shale gas’s opponents, giving them time to organise more and more protests, which were themselves ways of getting on the news and hence getting more donations. Never mind that few locals in Lancashire wanted to join the protests: plenty of upper-middle class types could be bussed in from the south.
As night follows day, Tory politicians lost courage and slipped into neutrality then opposition, worrying about what posh greens might think, rather than working-class bill-payers and job-seekers. A golden opportunity was squandered for Britain to get hold of home-grown, secure, cheap and relatively clean energy. We don’t need fossil fuels, the politicians thought, we’re going for net zero in 2050! But read the small print, chaps: the only way to have zero-emission transport and heating, so says the Committee on Climate Change, is to use lots of hydrogen. And how do they say most of the hydrogen is to be made? From gas.
After genetically modified crops and fracking, what innovation will be next to get stopped in its tracks by vested interests? Vaping, I reckon. It’s an open secret that the pharmaceutical industry pours money into anti-vaping campaigns because the technology is a threat to their lucrative nicotine patches and gums, which they have been getting doctors to prescribe to smokers trying to quit for years. Unlike e-cigarettes, which are the most effective aids to quitting yet found, Big Pharma’s products don’t work very well. So they are worried. Next time you hear somebody arguing that e-cigarettes (like coffee) burn the blood, dry the kidneys and attract the lymph, ask who benefits.
To stay updated, follow me on Twitter @mattwridley and Facebook. My new book How Innovation Works will be available May 2020.
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