fracking is just one symptom of our diseased democracies: how do we find a cure?

Of all the many troubles we face, from the huge repercussions of giving free rein to a criminal and insolvent financial services ‘industry’, to the rapid installment of a super-Orwellian grid for mass surveillance thanks to the NSA and GCHQ (and it’s hard to draw a clear division between the two agencies since evidently they share so much of our data and metadata), there is one that fills me with a more imminent sense of foreboding. That singular issue, fracking, my personal bugbear (at least for the present), somehow encapsulating everything that is so diabolically wrong with our democracies.

A branch-line of arguably the most ruthless and disreputable of all corporate sectors – takes some doing, but the hydrocarbon industry would at the very least be nominated for such an award, and that’s to say nothing of fracking pioneers Halliburton – first puts out its totally ludicrous lie that fracking has never caused any significant damage either to the environment or to human health. Notwithstanding such scandalous denials, the spokesmen of this same industry then lie again in efforts to allay our fears, making contradictory assertions that fracking in the UK will be completely, absolutely, and categorically different to more lax fracking practices carried out in other places. Perhaps even more flabbergasting, however, is that anyone outside of the industry gives credence to any of these corporate refutations and guarantees, yet predictably, it seems, some do… which amply illustrates the efficacy of a deviously clever and exceedingly well-funded public relations campaign.

Nevertheless, as trial drilling began in Britain, protesters gathered in huge numbers – just as anti-fracking protesters have gathered in huge numbers throughout the world. They came out to remind our contemptible Con-Dem government that this is not simply an environmental issue (as vitally important as this is), but that without proper consultation with local communities, any permission granted to frack under our neighbourhoods means yet another stab into the heart of (what we laughably still call) our democracy.

So back in early July, shortly after government plans for widespread fracking in Britain had been revealed, I decided to contact local constituency Labour MP Paul Blomfield in order to express my alarm. At the time I didn’t know if Blomfield felt similarly concerned about fracking nor the Labour Party’s official position. But I dashed off a quick email as follows:

Dear Paul,

The most pressing environmental issue facing this area of the world right now is fracking. Please stand up and challenge these plans to begin destroying our beautiful countryside and poisoning the precious ground water.

Best wishes,

James Boswell

Not the best email I’ve ever written, and after a month without reply I imagined it had found its contents emptied into Paul Blomfield’s recycle bin. But no, come mid August [14th] and to my surprise, Blomfield had put together an extended reply that was waiting in my own inbox:

Dear James

Thank you for your e-mail concerning fracking.

It must be a top priority to decarbonise our power supply as a matter of urgency if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. This is why the Labour party has said this will be in our manifesto at the General Election. Indeed I challenged David Cameron on a decarbonisation target for the power sector at Prime Minister’s Questions in February and pressed the issue with the Energy Secretary Ed Davey in June. I feel strongly about these issues, am a member of Sheffield Renewables and recently, working with Green Alliance UK, organised a city-wide conference on the potential of community energy schemes.

However I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix, if it is accompanied by an expansion of renewable energy capacity and investment in carbon capture and storage. But it makes no sense at all for the Government to announce tax breaks and industry incentives before we know how much shale gas is actually recoverable, or before anyone even has a licence to extract it. This money should instead have been used to kick-start a major national retrofit scheme, which would reduce carbon emissions and bills and create thousands green-collar jobs. The UK has among the best renewable resources / technology in the world and we should be seizing this great opportunity, including research in to carbon capture and storage.

Finally, it is vital that we fully address the wider environmental concerns associated with fracking. It is therefore crucial that Parliament is able to properly scrutinise the Government’s proposals and to ensure that key environmental safeguards are met and that there is robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring in place.

The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking, recognising that the current system is outdated and unworkable. We haven’t jumped on the “dash-for-gas” bandwagon and have instead set out six conditions that need to be met before fracking should be allowed:

1. Mandated disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and assessment by regulator of their potential environmental impact and only non-hazardous chemicals to be used in fracking mix.

2. Must be a full assessment of the well integrity to ensure casing and borehole not susceptible to leaking; this must meet current industry standards for other types of drilling.

3. Micro-seismic monitoring of the area prior to any drilling to determine what the potential impact would be on local area.

4. Full assessment of impact of water use on local community, including assessment of how much of the water will be reused or recycled.

5. An assessment of groundwater methane levels prior to fracking.

6. There should be at least a full year’s monitoring of all of the above before any drilling can proceed.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for energy has set out more on our position here: http://centrallobby.politicshome.com/latestnews/article-detail/newsarticle/tom-greatrex-osborne-should-listen-to-obama-on-shale/

Thank you once again for writing to me and sharing your views.

Best wishes,

Paul

Grateful for receiving a genuine response, I was also dismayed. Apparently the Labour Party too – our only major party not in government! – also has big plans for natural gas fracking. Picking between the lines I read “The Labour Party has consistently called for a new regulatory regime for fracking” with Blomfield’s personal position being “I would not completely rule out any role for shale gas within the UK’s energy mix”. In other words, we’ll do fracking too although we’ll be careful to avoid any of that nasty old Tory fracking. New Labour – new fracking! I suppose I shouldn’t have expected anything different, but it was depressing nonetheless. I wrote back forthwith:

Dear Paul,

I am grateful to you for replying to my letter but feel that I must disagree with you on a number of important points. To keep this simple, I will try to respond with reference to the points as enumerated.

1. I fail to see how fracking can be done at all without the use of hazardous chemicals. Can you provide examples of fracking carried out anywhere else in the world that uses an environmentally benign mixture of chemicals?

When selling the scheme in Poland the industry also claimed that only non-hazardous chemicals would be used but this turned out to be an outright and deliberate lie.

2. Well casings fail time and time again, I forget the exact percentage but any claim that well casings can be made absolutely secure from leaking is simply another industry lie.

4. Fracking requires enormous quantities of fresh water which will put an immediate strain on our reserves in areas where it is carried out. Much of this water never returns to the surface, which is surely worrying enough, the rest is then polluted not only with the chemicals added but also with any heavy metals and radioactive isotopes dissolved from the shale. Since this contaminated water is costly to dispose of the industry has been caught many times simply spreading it on roads or fields or wherever else happens to be convenient.

5. An assessment of methane levels prior to fracking is better than nothing but it only serves to help in the case of claims for compensation after the damage is done and when people discover their property has become uninhabitable. This has again happened over and over again but the industry regularly uses bribes, threats and non-disclosure agreements to cover up the fact.

6. One year’s monitoring is nothing. Why the big rush? If fracking offers such a potential boon then surely any government should first convince a concerned public by having a proper public debate on the issue.

Additionally, I cannot understand how dislodging large amounts of methane from shale can in anyway help to decarbonise the country. Methane itself is a far more effective greenhouse gas than CO2 and when it is burned again it simply produces CO2.

I am a physicist by training and in truth I am dismayed by the complete lack of imagination and investment when it comes to finding and developing alternative sources of energy. At the beginning of the twenty-first century surely we must find better and cleaner solutions for securing our long term energy needs. We live on a small island surrounded by ocean, so whatever happened to plans for wave and tidal power for instance? Fracking is a short-sighted, short term solution that pollutes land and water and endangers human populations. It is being promoted by the same people who brought us Deep Water Horizon (quite literally in the case of Lord Browne who is the man behind Cuadrilla) and yet for some reason we are now being asked to trust them.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the case of Jessica Ernst who is a Canadian environmental scientist in the process of suing the energy company Encana for the damage done by fracking in Alberta. She points out that although Canada has the highest environmental standards and tightest regulations in the world, when it came to fracking the industry managed to run roughshod over all of that. Here is a link where you can access the relevant documents: http://www.ernstversusencana.ca/

Thanks again for replying to my previous letter. Hopefully, I have now more clearly outlined my objections to plans for widespread fracking of our beautiful island. I look forward to hearing from you.

James

Three months (to the day) have since passed and I am yet to receive any further reply from Paul Blomfield.

More recently I came across yet another documentary investigating environmental and health issues associated with fracking, this time focussing attention on the rush for gas in Britain and, in particular, plans for extensive drilling throughout the Mendips as well as the immediate effects of the test drilling already carried out in Lancashire.

The Truth Behind the Dash For Gas takes a detailed look at the contamination of land and drinking water, seismic effects, as well as other less immediately toxic or hazardous strains that fracking puts on local communities. It starts out, however, by simply making the more straightforward assertion that the UK government has been deeply infiltrated by industry insiders. As evidence for this, it offers a summarised breakdown of appointments to government courtesy of Lord Browne of Cuadrilla (formerly of BP), who had himself been appointed as the government’s “lead non-executive director” in 2010:

He will be the government’s “lead non-executive director”, working with cabinet ministers to appoint people to improve efficiency in each department.

Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said Lord Browne’s experience would be of “real benefit”.

The appointment comes as Whitehall is being asked to make spending cuts averaging 25% over five years.

Lord Browne will sit on the Cabinet Office board, chaired by Mr Maude. This will look to take on non-executive directors for all government departments.1

Click here to read the full BBC news report.

Another article published more recently in July of this year by The Independent going on to point out that:

There are more than 60 “non-executives” (Neds) who sit across Whitehall departments, largely drawn from Britain’s most impressive corporate talent. Their job is to help ministries be run in a more business-like manner, and Lord Browne is the overall lead for this group.

Lord Browne sits within the Cabinet Office. The Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude’s constituency includes Balcombe in West Sussex, another area where Cuadrilla is drilling. On his website, Mr Maude acknowledges that fracking “understandably rang alarm bells” after the tremors in Lancashire, but argues that “shale gas could help significantly by contributing both to improving our security and independence and to keeping prices down”.

Mr Laidlaw has been the lead non-executive at the Department for Transport. Centrica, which owns British Gas, recently bought a one-quarter stake in Cuadrilla’s most promising licence, which is the one in Lancashire.

Baroness Hogg sits in the Treasury, but she is also a non-executive director at BG Group, which has extensive shale gas interests in the US.2

Incidentally, you can find a list of these non-executive directors in Whitehall departments here.

So if it wasn’t bad enough that our politicians are quite openly bought off by lobbyists, the appointments of non-executive directors means that corporations are now also granted an unelected but direct foothold throughout government. As the bloated corporatocracy becomes ever more bloated, our remaining elected representatives presumably wondering who they more profitably serve. They say they work for us, but aside from the website theyworkforyou.com where’s the evidence? Returning to the issue at hand, are the electorate jumping up and down and demanding to be fracked? I certainly don’t hear them. The corporate ‘Neds’ on the other hand…!

George Monbiot expounds the same point in his latest Guardian article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” and captioned “Lobbying is the least of it: corporate interests have captured the entire democratic process.” His article begins:

It’s the reason for the collapse of democratic choice. It’s the source of our growing disillusionment with politics. It’s the great unmentionable. Corporate power. The media will scarcely whisper its name. It is howlingly absent from parliamentary debates. Until we name it and confront it, politics is a waste of time.

The political role of business corporations is generally interpreted as that of lobbyists, seeking to influence government policy. In reality they belong on the inside. They are part of the nexus of power that creates policy. They face no significant resistance, from either government or opposition, as their interests have now been woven into the fabric of all three main political parties in Britain.

After supplying a range of pertinent examples, Monbiot continues:

The role of the self-hating state is to deliver itself to big business. In doing so it creates a tollbooth economy: a system of corporate turnpikes, operated by companies with effective monopolies.

It’s hardly surprising that the lobbying bill – now stalled by the House of Lords – offered almost no checks on the power of corporate lobbyists, while hog-tying the charities who criticise them. But it’s not just that ministers are not discouraged from hobnobbing with corporate executives: they are now obliged to do so.

Thanks to an initiative by Lord Green, large companies have ministerial “buddies”, who have to meet them when the companies request it. There were 698 of these meetings during the first 18 months of the scheme, called by corporations these ministers are supposed be regulating. Lord Green, by the way, is currently a government trade minister. Before that he was chairman of HSBC, presiding over the bank while it laundered vast amounts of money stashed by Mexican drugs barons. Ministers, lobbyists – can you tell them apart?3

Click here to read the complete article published in the Guardian.

But unfortunately, it’s even worse than that. The corporatocracy already transcending national boundaries and thanks to behind closed-doors “free trade agreements”, quickly reaching a point where corporations will not merely be embedded with governments but enjoying equal status with nation states:

The United States and European Union (EU) are in closed-door negotiations to establish a Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) that would elevate individual corporations to equal status with nation states. Seriously.

The pact is slated to include a foreign investor privileges scheme that would empower foreign corporations to bypass domestic laws and courts and demand taxpayer compensation for government actions or policies to safeguard clean air, safe food and stable banks.

This “investor-state” enforcement system would grant foreign firms the power to drag the U.S. and EU governments before extrajudicial tribunals — comprised of three private attorneys — that would be authorized to order unlimited taxpayer compensation for domestic health, financial, environmental and other public interest policies the corporations claim undermine their “expected future profits.” And, there would be no outside appeal.4

So writes Lori Wallach , someone who has testified on NAFTA, WTO, and other globalisation issues before thirty U.S. congressional committees and is currently Director of Public Citizen‘s Global Trade Watch.

Click here to read Lori Wallach’s complete article on Huffington Post.

Around the time that negotiations started on this US-EU free trade deal back in July, claims that it would lead to “an economic bonanza” also came under close scrutiny in the Guardian. Dean Baker, who is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (not to be confused with the unrelated Centre for Economic Policy Research in the UK) , pointing out that:

As growth policy, this trade deal doesn’t pass the laugh test, but that doesn’t mean that it may not be very important to a number of special interests and, for this reason, bad news for most of the public. Since conventional barriers to trade between the US and EU are already very low, the focus of the deal will be on non-conventional barriers, meaning various regulatory practices.

Each industry group has a list of regulations that it finds troublesome, which it has been unable to eliminate or weaken at the national or sub-national level. An EU-US trade agreement provides these industry groups with an opportunity to do an end-run around such regulation.

For example, several countries in Europe and many state and county governments in the United States impose restrictions that make fracking difficult or impossible. In their dream agreement, the oil and gas industries will have a set of minimal restrictions on fracking. The deal will then define anything more stringent as a restraint on trade subject to penalties.

Yes, it’s a deal that once again helps to open the way to that old devil called fracking, but not just fracking… it will loosen regulations for big agra, big pharma, and the financial services ‘industry’. It may even permit tightening of controls that limit the freedom of the internet and without any need for bills like PIPA and SOPA to be passed into law:

There are likely to be similar effects on food regulation. Europe has far more restrictions on genetically modified foods and crops than the United States. Since it is not possible, given current European politics, for the industry to get these restrictions eliminated, it will be looking to include provisions in a trade deal that define limits on genetically modified foods and crops as trade barriers.

Millions of people took part in the efforts last year to defeat Sopa and Pipa, two bills that would require individuals and internet intermediaries to proactively work to stop the transmission of unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted material. The entertainment industry would very much like to include comparable provisions in a trade agreement, so that it can avoid having to have another fight over this issue in Congress.

The financial industry will also be at the table trying to include language that limits the ability of governments to impose regulations. It is likely that it will try to include wording that would make it impossible to enforce a financial transactions tax like the one now being considered by the European Union. Although the industry may not be able to sway enough votes in European parliaments to prevent them from supporting a tax, they can use an EU-US trade deal to make that fact irrelevant.5

Click here to read Dean Baker’s complete Guardian article

Monbiot says “I don’t blame people for giving up on politics” by which he means, I suppose, giving up on our current party political system. However, there are myriad alternative ways in which people remain very actively engaged in politics, and arguably, there have been few times in history when more people have been politically engaged (or perhaps I better mean enraged!) than during recent years.

With our governments already captured by special interests, it is just two years since many hundreds of thousands took to the streets to camp out in protest. Los Indignados leading the way, followed by Occupy Wall Street and then the wider Occupy movement. Those millions failed, but since their dissent was representative of even greater numbers who stayed at home, their valiant stand remains as a political marker. And since Occupy packed up their tents and retreated, the numbers of disaffected have only continued to rise, even if our cries of distress and anger are that much harder to hear. Irrefutably there is indeed a burgeoning interest in politics and a growing desire for a new political direction.

In the long run, protests will only get any movement so far, in any case, and so serious engagement with the democratic remnants of the extant political system is actually the only practical and realistic way forward. Credible and detailed programmes for real change, a basic requirement. Our new policies in turn requiring electable representatives to carry them forward. To take our democracies back we simply have to make use of the ballot box.

In the shorter term, however, protests do indeed help to bring about important, if generally, more local victories. And for once, the documentary I have featured above actually ends on a positive note. Since in spite of the Australian government’s keenness to give fracking the go-ahead, public hostility and the resulting anti-fracking campaign known as Lock the Gate has quickly gathered momentum to become an immense obstacle to further drilling. The campaigners driving the industry away from region after region, and real grassroots democracy for once beating back corporate greed.

The lesson, if we needed it, is that direct action really works – so (and certainly when it comes to fracking) why not follow Australia’s fine example? Meanwhile, letters to your MP cost nothing, and at the very least may help to sow a few seeds of doubt in the minds of our supposed representatives. To reap fuller rewards, however, we need first to retake ownership of territory other than the immediate landscape outside our doors, as vital as that is. We must aim instead to recapture the political heartland itself. Occupying not the streets outside Whitehall, but the corridors of power within. Following this, we may finally be able to start the lengthy treatment needed to cure the main disease, which is corporatocracy – the worst of its symptoms, such as fracking, will then, in turn, abate.

*

Update:

Yesterday [Nov 13th] wikileaks released a 95-page draft of a chapter relating to a different behind closed doors ‘free trade’ agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The agreement, which is being negotiated between the United States and twelve Pacific Rim nations, could also have wide-reaching implications for internet freedom, civil liberties, publishing rights and medicine accessibility with changes to laws on intellectual property rights, product safety and environmental regulations. Today’s Democracy Now! hosted a debate between Bill Watson, who is an analyst at the Cato Institute, and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch:

 

Here is a brief overview of the debate:

LORI WALLACH: Well, free trade is a pretty theory, but as yesterday’s WikiLeaks showed, the TPP has very little to do with free trade. So, only five of the 29 chapters of the agreement even have to do with trade at all. What’s in that intellectual property chapter? What the Cato Institute would call rent seeking—governments being lobbied by special interests to set up special rules that give them monopolies to charge higher prices. What does that mean for you and me? In that agreement, we now can see the United States is pushing for longer monopoly patents for medicines that would increase the prices here. They’re looking for patenting things like surgical procedures, making even higher medical costs. They’re looking to patent life forms and seeds. And with respect to copyright, the U.S. positions are actually even undermining U.S. law. So, for Internet freedom, if you didn’t like SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, the domestic law that Congress and amazing citizen activism killed last year when it was attempted to be pushed here domestically, huge chunks of SOPA are pushed through the backdoor of this intellectual property chapter.

Now, what the heck is that doing in a free trade agreement? I would imagine the Cato Institute is also wondering: Are Adam Smith and David Ricardo, the free trade philosophers, rolling in their graves? Because that is protectionism. This is patent monopolies. This is copyright extensions. This is actually exactly what Bill just talked about, which is powerful special interests—Big Pharma, Disney and the other big-content guys—undermining us as consumers—our access to the Internet, our access to affordable medicine—and they’re using their power to put that into an agreement that they’ve got misbranded as “free trade.”

BILL WATSON: This is a rare occasion where I do agree with Lori Wallach. I agree that what’s going on in the IP chapter is a special-interest free-for-all, a grab bag, that U.S. companies are pushing to get what they want in these agreements. And the problem, really, with that is that intellectual property is not a trade issue, and it shouldn’t be in the agreement. Originally, adding intellectual property into the agreement was a way to bring on more political support, to be able to bring in U.S. companies to counter other U.S. companies that would oppose the agreement. At this point, I think we’ve gotten to where the intellectual property chapters are so expansive that what you’re seeing is a domestic constituency, people concerned about copyright and patent reform, who are opposing the TPP, not because of anything having to do with trade, but just because it’s going to reform U.S. copyright and patent laws. […]

You know, I’m certainly glad that WikiLeaks published this report. Personally, I like to be able to read it. It’s very interesting. I wish that they would publish the rest of it, to show us the rest of the draft text. I don’t think that it would be, at this point, particularly harmful to the agreement to let us know something about the countries’ negotiating positions.

But I really—I really disagree that the TPP negotiations are especially secret. There’s a lot that goes on in Congress that the public doesn’t know about. When Congress writes a law, we don’t know in advance what it’s going to be before it gets proposed. So, they’re still trying to figure out what the contents of the agreement will be. They don’t know yet; they’re working on it.

LORI WALLACH: Well, first of all, this is extraordinarily secret. I’ve followed these negotiations since 1991 with NAFTA. And during NAFTA, any member of Congress could see any text. In fact, the whole agreement between negotiating rounds was put in the Capitol, accessible for them to look at. In 2001, the Bush administration published the entire Free Trade Area of the Americas text, when it was even in an earlier stage than TPP is right now, on government websites. They’ve even excluded members of Congress from observing the negotiations. I mean, this is extraordinary. […]

I mean, these agreements, once they’re implemented, you can’t change a comma unless all the other countries agree. It locks into place, super-glues, cements into place one vision of law that, as we’ve seen, has very little to do with trade. It’s about domestic food safety. Do we have to import food that doesn’t meet U.S. safety standards? It’s about setting up international tribunals—can’t imagine the Cato Institute likes that, global governance and all—where U.S. government could be sued and our Treasury raided by foreign corporations, who are rent seeking, compensation for not having to meet our own laws that our domestic companies have to meet. […]

The bottom line of all of this is we need a new procedure to replace fast track that gives the public the role and Congress the role to make sure what will be binding, permanent, global laws do not undermine either our democratic process of making policies at home—that we need—or that lock us into retrograde policies that the current 600 corporate trade advisers are writing to impose on us. So, we need a new way to make trade agreements to get different kinds of agreements. And the bottom line with TPP, as this WikiLeak just showed, it’s very dangerous. It’s not about trade. You’ve got to find out about it. And you’ve got to make sure your member of Congress maintains their constitutional authority. Democracy is messy. But I, myself, more trust the American public, the press and this Congress rather than 600 corporate advisers. We need to make sure what’s in that trade agreement suits us, and you all are going to be the difference in doing that.

Click here to read the full transcript or watch the debate on the Democracy Now! website.

*

1 From an article entitled “Ex-BP boss Lord Browne to lead Whitehall reform” published by BBC news on June 30, 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10467532

2 From an article entitled “Revealed: Fracking industry bosses at heart of coalition” published by The Independent on July 14, 2013. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/revealed-fracking-industry-bosses-at-heart-of-coalition-8707589.html

3 From an article entitled “It’s business that really rules us now” written by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian on November 11, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/11/business-rules-lobbying-corporate-interests

4 From an article entitled “’Trade’ Deal Would elevate Corporations to Equal Status With Nation States” written by Lori Wallach (Director, Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch) published by Huffington Post on October 22, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lori-wallach/trade-deal-would-elevate_b_4143626.html

5 From an article entitled “The US-EU trade deal: don’t buy the hype” written by Dean Baker, published in the Guardian on July 15, 2013. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/15/us-trade-deal-with-europe-hype

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Filed under analysis & opinion, Australia, Britain, Europe, fracking (shale & coal seam gas), global warming, GMO, USA

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