Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Arguments for fracking are nothing new

Fracking has been big news on both sides of the pond recently, and this is understandable. Many see it as an unnecessary and potentially dangerous assault on the landscape, and the people who live in it. Fracking companies are understandably keen, but so are some politicians. Some see this as a sign of MPs in the back pocket of big business, but often the argument from the pro-fracking camp is that not only are the dangers overstated, but fracking is also good for the state. As an Independent article last month argued:

‘A decade ago, the UK was self-sufficient in gas, but North Sea production has fallen sharply in the years since.  We now import around half our gas supply, and Britain’s import dependency is projected to rise to three quarters of consumption by 2030.  This is the key reason for developing shale gas – replacing imported gas with domestic gas’.

So is this about controlling our own gas supplies? It is certainly more complex than that, but the argument makes some sense. With crises in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the Middle East perennially in turmoil, being able to control our own energy is surely a good thing. This is of course compounded by the dwindling supply of oil in the North Sea.  

This idea is, of course, nothing new. I argue in my work that it is Britain’s control of the best fuel for its navy; South Welsh steam coal, which enabled the navy full performance anywhere in the world. Not only this, but it also allowed Britain to deny its rivals the same advantage. Indeed, we see the effects of this multiple times during the nineteenth century. 

A salient example is during the voyage of the US Navy’s famous ‘Great White Fleet’. Denied the use of British naval coal and coaling stations, the ships limped from port to port, buying low grade coal where it could. Seeking to demonstrate growing American military power and naval capability, the world tour instead exposed the fact that ship numbers and technology mattered little without infrastructure with which to coal the fleet. To this end, Senator Hale was particularly embarrassed that ‘the greatest fleet of formidable ships that the world has ever seen’ had to depend on ‘the indulgence of foreign powers’.[1]
Of course, Britain soon found itself in the same situation as its warships shifted from coal to oil – something which it had no domestic supply of. Its solutions to this issue – many of them involving the Middle East – have had lasting implications, many of which are ongoing. 

A recent trip to the Richard Burton Archives at Swansea University revealed that naval men in the 1930s were arguing a similar line about Welsh coal as we see today about fracking. A campaign, which was presented to the Cabinet, called for a return to the use of Welsh coal for the navy. Known as the ‘Back to Coal’ movement, it contained a variety of high ranking officers, and men of some political clout (in fact, the list of those men is worthy of a blog in itself, some have very interesting stories.) This group suggested, both through petitions and a published book, that Britain was in real danger in a future war, because it could not guarantee its own fuel supply for the navy. Of course, the campaign came to nothing, but in a way, they were correct, if only about the wrong state. The Allied Oil Campaign towards the end of the Second World War – which stopped supplies reaching Germany from Romania, has been argued by some to have been a key factor in the defeat of Hitler. 

In no way is this an argument for fracking, clearly environmental factors are of utmost concern, and we only need to look at the effect of mining in Wales so see that it had devastating effects on both miners and the landscape. But what I have tried to show is that this argument is nothing new, and for a state, being able to control its own energy in a world that is politically unstable is a very attractive one.

[1] Robert A. Hart, The Great White Fleet; Its Voyage around the World, 1907-1909 (Boston: Little, 1965), 33, 55.