Thursday, 29 May 2014

The renewables and fracking debate Forest Hills last night

The Frodsham and Kingsley Transition Initiative debate at Forest Hills was interesting and thought provoking.  Professors Eirk Bichard from Salford University and Professor Peter Styles from Keele University led the debate on whether fracking was necessary or desirable.  Each took a different side in the argument - however for me, what I found particularly interesting was where they agreed.

Both looked on the debate from the standpoint of climate change and the need to take carbon out of our energy production.  However there is a problem - the apparent lack of a coherent energy production policy from Government and the long lead in time to commission new power plants.  This is a criticism levied both at the present Government and, the previous Blair/Brown Government.

Both Professors agreed that, for energy production, we need a mixed approach to production.  Both agreed that the future, probably post 2030, would see energy production primarily made up of nuclear power and renewables. They also agreed that energy efficiency was also key - we can all do a lot more to reduce our energy usage.

Professor Bichard pointed out how inefficient our housing stock is when it comes to energy usage or wastage and that more could be done to promote more renewables, such as hydro, solar or tidal.

The difference between the Professors came when dealing with the position between now and say 2030.  How do we 'de-carbonise' our energy production?  Erik Bichard believes we can do enough though energy reduction and promoting more renewables to avoid having to exploit any shale gas reserves.  Peter Styles sees shale gas extraction 'fracking' as the least worst solution to bridge our energy gap whilst also seeking to promote energy efficiency and renewables.

In the debate Prof Styles pointed to some of the effects of the American's massive exploitation of shale gas production.  The American's costs of production and energy have fallen greatly.  They now have a significant advantage over Europe when it comes to manufacturing.  One of the unexpected consequences of American shale gas is the increased burning of cheap American coal in Europe - and thereby causing increased CO2 emissions which further risks climate change.  American coal has become cheap because of the abundance of shale gas.

He also hinted at the economic consequences for the UK of being overly reliant on Russian, Norwegian or Qatari supplies of Liquefied Natural Gas.  A state which he believes we are heading to.

Professor Styles pointed out that there have been over 200 'fracks' in the UK since the late 1950s or early 1960s.  He pointed out that these fracks had taken place without incident.

When it came to whether the UK will seek to exploit its shale resources Professor Styles was less sure.  He described a 'triangular' position which has yet to be completed:

  • are their shale gas resources;
  • can they be exploited economically; and
  • is their public consent for that to occur?
Frodsham Transition Initiative, who organised the debate, then brought in 5 other speakers.  I went fifth! The other four speakers talked briefly about various energy saving approaches or energy production through renewables.  This raised an interesting question about whether biomass burning was actually a more or less sustainable means of energy production.

I spoke briefly about the national consensus between Labour and the Conservatives on exploiting shale gas if it is safe to do so and there is community acceptance.  I explained how I want to go further and ensure real community engagement.  I pointed out, what virtually everyone in the room already appreciated, that where we sat in Frodsham we had had plenty of controversial developments 'done' to us, rather than with us.  The well known examples include:
  • Peel's windfarm;
  • Peel's Ince Resource Recovery Park - and its permission for two incinerators; and
  • the burning of Greater Manchester's waste at Ineos.
I argued that, that position must come to an end.  

I pointed out that we would not be interested in shale gas exploitation unless it could be done safely - and I mean really safely and that there was community agreement that it should happen.

We've already had coal bed methane explorations at Ince where coal bed and shale gas was discovered.  At some point those of us around the estuary may have to face a planning application for it to be exploited.  I want the community as a whole to be given the means to decide controversial planning applications in future either through deciding the applications in a vote or perhaps through a local referendum on a neighbourhood plan.  There was widespread agreement with that sort of approach.  I pointed out it would also force industry and our regulators to do far more to engage with local communities.  

I also want independent expert advice for local communities about these sort of controversial developments. I explained how Cllr Riley and I had been able to persuade Peel to do that with regard to air quality ahead of their Ince Waste Recovery park being built - and that this had shown that we have air quality issues but these were associated with cars and lorries on the M56 and A56.

At the end of the debate the Chairman sought to discover from the room what they thought.

From where I sat there appeared to be a consensus in the room that the UK needed to:
  • do more on energy efficiency; and
  • do more to promote non-carbon using energy production such as nuclear and renewables.

It also looked like that most of the people in the room supported shale gas extraction - although there was also a significant number who were opposed to it.

After the debate we had a number of break out sessions.  Amongst the people I spoke with were a number from Halton and Upton.  The Halton residents were particularly critical of the lack of engagement they perceived from their council and their industry.  They were also critical of politicians who fail to show leadership for their communities about these issues.  I agreed with them!  The residents from Upton raised the testing that is going on there and what they saw as the lack of information given to them about the present exploration.  I tried to encourage one of them to stand for Upton Parish Council!

I pointed out to them all how few Councillors had bothered to engage in CWaC's Local Development Plan consultations - and how it appears that only Cllr Lynn Riley and I were the only ones to engage regarding the emerging policies in the plan regarding 'novel hydrocarbon' extraction.  Both of us are arguing for much stronger community engagement and involvement in any decision making.

As part two of the plan with its detailed policies is emerging please get involved with suggesting policies!

A big thank you to Frodsham Transition Initiative.  A well organised and thought provoking event.  I learnt much from it and I'm sure others did too.  I will keep arguing for Frodsham, and indeed any community to be given the means to decide any controversial application.  This is too important a matter to be decided by one or two people whether from Government or the Planning Inspectorate.