Village and Vale
Don't frack with our environment
NEWS just before Christmas that the government had decided to allow a company to drill for gas in Lancashire's shale rock sent shock waves through environmental groups and everyone concerned with the safety of our landscape and indeed our own homes and lives.
The process - commonly known as "fracking" - involves liquids being blasted under the ground, in a series of small explosions, to free trapped shale gas.
The announcement of the decision was greeted in the House of Commons with enthusiasm by many MPs. But an early warning of environmental hazards came from the Wells MP Tessa Munt - the Mendip Hills are earmarked as a future fracking site.
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Among the daily papers there was a warm welcome from The Sun which hailed a potential "bonanza of jobs, cash and cheaper energy" and concern from The Guardian which saw the "bonanza" in a very different light, saying that Britain had relinquished its world leadership on the issue of climate change for a "doubtful bonanza from fossil fuels".
With promises of strict conditions (from the government) and of safety (from the company), and with the possibility of vast underground wells of natural gas, perhaps we should all believe the assurances and recognise the benefits to our economy, and to the longer term security of our gas supplies. (None of us can be entirely happy with gas supplies from Russia piped across fragile and unstable former Soviet Union states.)
But there is good reason to be concerned, because mining is a dangerous business and underground explosions can have unexpected consequences. In this context, it is interesting to look into the history of salt mining in Cheshire.
Salt brought prosperity to Cheshire long before footballers wives sprinkled their tinsel glamour over the county. Salt brought canals and huge industrial complexes and, by the 1890s, the county was supplying 90 per cent of British salt and adding to the profitability of the port of Liverpool with exports across the Empire.
Conditions for the earlier rock salt miners were dangerous. But even worse were the living conditions in the 19th century for the people who toiled in the brine works. The chimneys were not built high enough to carry the soot and glowing cinders away and people lived under the burning clouds, while vegetation was choked by air pollution. Children started working at the salt pans, with their parents, from the age of nine. Public inquiries led to laws that protected children and women and girls from the horrors of the industry, but it was the collapse - literally - of houses, churches, pastures and even towns that finally ended brine working.
Initially blamed on the rock salt mines, the cause of the "subsidence" was eventually recognised as excessive pumping of brine from underneath Cheshire.
The story is told by historian Mark Kurlansky in Salt: A World History, published by Penguin (2002) - it's an excellent read, that takes you through thousands of years and around the globe, telling the story of man's need for salt and the contribution to the development of humankind made by the only rock we eat.
Of course, scientific knowledge and safety regulation have improved since the days of Blake's dark Satanic mills and Dickens' Mr Gradgrind. But it is interesting to see that many oppose renewable energy sources that can be seen above ground but appear to give the nod to invisible, inadequately researched technologies to extract subterranean fossil fuels which could destabilise the land on which we walk.
It is yet again an example of a government grabbing gratefully at a private company keen to exploit an untapped source of fossil fuels (inevitably limited in quantity) rather than invest in serious research to find the most effective renewable technologies.
Time and tide might wait for no man ... after the failure of the Doha summit, the clock is ticking on Peak Oil and climate change. But the tides inexorably ebb and flow.
Where can we see the investment in harnessing the tidal power that surrounds us and perhaps could meet our energy needs? Time will run out on Kyoto but the tides will still be racing.