Leading article

The only way the Tories can show they care about the North is to permit fracking in Sussex

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

David Howell never really succeeded as energy and then transport secretary in Mrs Thatcher’s governments. After she sacked him in 1983, Thatcher wrote that ‘he lacked the mixture of creative political imagination and practical drive to be a first-class cabinet minister’.

If she were still alive and writing now, she might have added that he has the sensibilities of a rhinoceros on Valium. His remark this week that fracking is more acceptable in the north-east because that part of the country is ‘desolate’ has rightly been condemned. No politician should go about insulting parts of his own country, least of all a part of the country that his party is widely thought to disdain.

Lord Howell’s comments add grist to the arguments of those who complain that the government only supports fracking when it is well outside Conservative constituencies. This is an impression which the government needs to correct very quickly by supporting the case for fracking in Sussex — where this week celebrity protestors have joined locals to oppose an exploratory test bore for oil and gas (not yet involving fracking) — every bit as much as it supports fracking in the Labour heartlands of Lancashire.

It will never be possible to win over the extremities of the nimby tendency. But by tackling the misinformation spewed out by groups claiming to speak on behalf of the environment, a large majority of Sussex residents, as well as those farther north, can be won over. Far from requiring a desolate, lightly inhabited landscape, fracking is quite capable of being carried out in intimate areas of countryside such as the Sussex Weald without ill effect. Fracking does naturally involve a certain amount of fracturing. But this is only required while establishing a well. Once this process in completed it is possible to extract gas for decades, quietly and cleanly.


The area of land required is small — about the size of two football pitches for a well pad. As for traffic, the 400 or so lorry movements required during the fracking process itself will be lost among the lorries daily negotiating the roads of Sussex to deliver white goods to rural homeowners and carry materials to and from construction sites.

Has any piece of propaganda been so persistent as the idea that fracking causes local residents’ water taps to emit a stream of flammable gas? Of several thousand fracking sites in the US just one — in Pennsylvania — has been implicated with causing the -contamination of drinking water with methane. But the contamination did not come from the fracking itself, which happens thousands of feet down; it came from the natural gas close to the surface which had been contaminating local residents’ water supplies for decades but which was slightly increased when a poorly constructed borehole for gas extraction was drilled through the upper layers of rock.

Britain cannot afford to reject fracking if it is to remain competitive with the US, which is pursuing a cheap energy policy while renewable energy targets are driving up the cost of energy here. Moreover, as has happened in the US, fracking offers the quickest way to reduce carbon emissions without condemning ourselves to a state of pre-industrial poverty. But our fracking industry will only succeed if public fears are first calmed through an open and frank debate of the risks and how they will be managed. Lord Howell’s foolish contribution does nothing to help win an argument which must, nevertheless, be won.

Iraq’s dangerous corner

A few months ago, foreign-policy hawks were fond of saying that Iraq had ‘turned a corner’.

Yes, they agreed, it had been a painful decade, but things were improving and before long everyone would have to admit that the country was better off than it was before. In March, Baroness Nicholson even wrote in these pages about the ‘rebirth of a nation’ in Mesopotamia. The country’s oil-rich economy had started to soar, she said, and a healthy democracy was taking root.

Nobody would say that now. Sunni-Shia hostilities are spilling over from the conflict in Syria and Iraq is a war zone once more. Last week, al-Qa’eda in Iraq raided a prison in Baghdad, releasing hundreds of convicted terrorists. Since then, unsurprisingly, bomb attacks in the capital have intensified. While the world turns a blind eye, almost 3,000 people have been killed in the last three months, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki seems to be losing his grip.

There’s nothing the West can do to help — but that in itself is a salutary lesson. The horror of what has happened in Iraq should serve as a grim reminder not to claim success too quickly. Across the region, the fault line between the Sunnis and the Shia is always ready to break apart.

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  • Levinas

    ‘ condemning ourselves to a state of pre-industrial poverty. ‘ Sadly for the majority of the UK population, that’s precisely where the Conservative party wants us to be, across all areas.The fracking assault planned for the UK is on par with the Conservative assault upon employment rights, health and safety, social rights eroded by a localism bill that’s anything but, the removal of health care by back door privatisation of the NHS and the most offensive of all-the complete disregard for UK laws and regulations by Conservative minsters in government when forming and forcing upon us policies they have no mandate to pursue.
    Still enjoying the highest rate of expenses payments though are they not?Parasites, the lot of them,.
    No to fracking.No to Conservative government policy designed to subjugate UK citizens whilst enriching the 1%.No to lawless ministers and government, hell bent of destroying my country for the benefit of its banker backers.No to political funding in exchange for input into national policy making.Just NO to Conservative scum sucking parasites.

  • David Hodgson

    I stand to be corrected but I thought part of the fracking process involved the pumping of millions of gallons of water. Will the frackers be shut down when the next hosepipe ban comes into force. Logic would suggest yes.

  • Nick Alderton

    If it is Nimby not to want to negotiate 16 wheeled lorries carrying God knows what, or to listen to the constant drone of a drilling rig down the lane or not to have a methane flare lighting up our dark sky then I am unashamedly Nimby. Sussex is an area of radical respectability represented largely by the Conservative party but any MP that votes to accept Fracking in our constituency is committing political suicide, we would vote for an exhumed Screaming Lord Sutch if he would promise to stop this huge error of judgement.

    • Ahobz

      Why do you think ther would be a flare? Offshore oil rigs flare off the gas component of the oil they pump up because it is uneconomic to pipe it onshore. When you are drilling for gas why would you flare any away?

      • Nick Alderton

        In underbalanced drilling, the drilling mud can become saturated with gas. This mud is routed through a separator and the gas is safely flared off so it will not cause an uncontrolled fire or explosion on the rig.

        • Ahobz

          Underbalanced drilling is usually more expensive than conventional drilling (when drilling a deviated well which requires directional drilling
          tools), and has safety issues of its own. Technically the well is
          always in a blowout condition unless a heavier fluid is displaced into
          the well. – from Wikipedia – so its a technique unlikely to be used on cost and environmental grounds close to habitation. Shale extraction is going to be tightly controlled.

          This appears to me to be scare mongering – what’s the worst that can happen. The fact is the leader is right. There is no reason for any part of the country that lies over gas bearing rock to be exempt from extraction.

  • Mike Barnes

    So if Howell wasn’t even that good at his job, why is he a Lord? Why does he have a job for life in politics when he failed at it?

    Sums up the Lords, close it down and start again please.

  • In2minds

    “The only way the Tories can show they care about the North………” is to turn HS2 around, build it from Birmingham to Newcastle upon Tyne. I bet they don’t!

    • Paul

      Even if they did that, given the HS2 example, they’d only knock 10 minutes or so off the existing journey

  • vernony

    Exactly Mike. I wonder if the author of the article in the Spectator has ever stood for Parliament ? So easy to snipe when you are not in power

  • vernony

    I might add the demonstrators seems to be a pretty ignorant bunch too. It has never been proved that Quadrilla caused earth tremors. They accepted the blame which was probably to shut up the media. The UK is no stranger to earth tremors anyway, I think we have one virtually every day !

    As for burning water…………We must not lose sight of the fact that there is compensation to be claimed if people can prove that fracking has turned their water into an inflammable substance. Personally I doubt it, somewhere there is a gas bottle hidden and turned on for effect. Moreover, drinking water is not often obtained from private wells in the UK, as it often is in the USA. Water sampling for bacteria and other mixes are tested for very frequently indeed. Moreover, water is usually passed down a cascade open to air. If, through the unlikely event that there was any gas in it, it would boil out in the cascade

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