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Ryedale, in North Yorkshire, is a beautiful part of the world. The landscape has a soft-edged, rolling quality that for me is typical of rural England at its finest, while its villages are built out of yellowish stone that seems to have been made for soaking up evening sunlight. I’ve loved it since I went camping there for a week with my school in 1995, and have always opted to pass that way again whenever the opportunity has come up.
The area is also home to a facility for natural gas extraction – it has been since 1995, coincidentally. For 21 years, this industrial activity has gone on near the village of Kirby Misperton, creating jobs and producing energy – and yet the natural landscape is still there. To hear some of the wilder environmentalist claims about such sites, the area ought to be a smoking, poisoned wasteland, cut through only by the occasional flaming stream and rill. But in fact the two activities have co-existed quite happily for more than two decades.
That experience should inform our reaction to the news that the same site has been approved for the extraction of shale gas. North Yorkshire County Council has given planning permission for fracking to take place, and the Environmental Agency has granted the necessary permits, and so the mean, green outrage machine is now running in its top gear – some have allegedly been forging objections to the scheme, while Vivienne Westwood and a host of others have turned up to prophesy disaster for Ryedale, apparently either unaware or unmoved by the fact that the area has a history of successful, appropriate and sympathetic gas extraction already.
It is the height of irony to see the usual celebrity faces and permanent campaigners who have spent the last 30 years lamenting the passing of the miners now rallying to prevent a new generation of workers getting the chance of entering well-paid engineering jobs in the energy industry. It seems that dirty coal is close to their hearts, while far cleaner shale gas is somehow unacceptable.
Some critics have also claimed that shale gas is pointless, because of the large fall in oil prices. But these are the same people who spend the rest of their time arguing that oil is finite and that the price is bound to rise again. We are fortunate in this country to have potentially vast quantities of accessible shale gas – of course the decision to extract it will be informed by whether its location and the energy markets make it financially viable, but that is no reason at all to forbid its exploration and extraction. With the Middle East in seemingly endless chaos and Russia becoming more aggressive by the day, it makes a lot of sense to make the most of a new energy resource at home, which is not controlled by ISIS, mullahs, unstable demagogues, Saudi tyrants or the Kremlin’s bully boys.
It is therefore good news that the County Council chose to focus on the sober realities of the proposal rather than bend to the demands of the loudest protesters outside their meeting. For too long, the development of a British shale gas industry – which offers employment, improved energy security and a sustainable route to getting out of coal – has been delayed by a combination of hysterical opposition and incompetent handling on the part of industry.
In 2012, all UK fracking was placed on hold after an ill-informed panic about “earthquakes” in the North West was allowed to run rampant, rather than being calmed by facts. As the Institute of Directors pointed out (declaration: I worked there at the time), the tremors attributed to fracking by Cuadrilla were smaller than the type of tremor which routinely occur naturally in this country, while anyone who has bought a house in an old coalfield will know that much of the country is riddled with historic mine-workings, making the possibility of some minor tremors a part of day to day life which most ignore entirely without any problem.
For the shale industry’s part, Third Energy, the company behind the Kirby Misperton application, appears to have taken a sensible approach to its plans for shale gas. Using a existing and successful site of gas extraction as the home for the new development makes a clear point: industrial energy extraction already takes place in the UK, mostly unnoticed by residents, farmers and tourists alike. They have also been open and clear about the fact that fracking is an intensive process during the few weeks it takes to set a site up, not during the entire period of extraction.
Hyperbole from some campaigners has fuelled a completely false image of what gas extraction really involves – a picture of vast smoking pits which have more to do with Victorian coal mining and dystopian fiction than the modern realities of the shale gas industry. Now, thanks to this decision, we will get to see exactly what such a site looks like over the full course of its life. To get some idea, look at the picture (sourced from Third Energy) which illustrates this article. That copse of trees, surrounded by fields, is none other than the already drilled exploratory well at Kirby Misperton. During the vast majority of its life as a shale well it will, I predict, look rather similar.