(With reference to my blog last week, the Sheffield tree story is now reaching a crunch point. Last week, Green Party Councillor Alison Teal was found not guilty of breaching Sheffield City Council’s injunction against protestors, and Colin Payne guilty only on a lesser charge. The tide is definitely turning! So please do what you can to support the campaign: https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/sheffield-street-trees-legal-fund-continuation-3)

I was in Sheffield on my way to Pickering in the Vale of Ryedale in North Yorkshire. Pickering is now on the front line of the still unfolding fracking story here in the UK, and I’d been invited by the local Quaker group (which is deeply involved in the campaign) to give a public talk.

To say that my visit was ‘educational’ is something of an understatement! I’d read up a lot on the local issues (obviously!), but things are moving so fast up there that I’d missed a lot of the really critical stuff – not least first-hand accounts of some of the most aggressive policing tactics that I’ve ever come across in a long time. (Even worse than in Sheffield!)

A bit of background first. The UK Government (despite all its protestations about seeking to ‘decarbonise our economy as fast as possible’) has decided that developing a full-on fracking industry here in the UK is a crucial part of our Clean Growth Strategy. (Don’t laugh: it gets worse – a lot worse!) It has therefore already over-ridden local authority and intense public opposition in the Fylde, Lancashire, where Cuadrilla is now pressing ahead as fast as possible with a massive new development.

The Vale of Ryedale is next – the beautiful, much-loved and very special Vale of Ryedale. Being just a few miles away from Third Energy’s preliminary drilling site at Kirby Misperton, Pickering is now the epicentre of the local campaign.

Third Energy is a much smaller player than Cuadrilla, but it bought out a company called Viking UK Gas some years ago, which had developed a number of conventional gas sites in the area. Gas is being extracted from six existing sites, feeding into a local gas-powered power station at Knapton. Which meant that the planning application at Kirby Misperton proceeded pretty smoothly on the basis of prior development.

Permission has been granted for a test well – just to see what’s down there, by way of unconventional gas, and whether it’s going to be commercially viable. If it’s not (and many believe it really won’t be, given local geological and other factors), end of story; if it is, that’s the start of a completely horrendous nightmare for people throughout the Vale of Ryedale. With multiple new wells in the offing.

Fracking mythology/propaganda, largely imported from the USA, would have us all believe that fracked gas is clean, low-carbon and well-regulated. It is none of these things in the US, and will be none of these things in the UK. With more and more evidence from the US now being amassed, the appalling impact on air quality, water quality and general quality of life for local communities has deeply disturbing implications for public health and the environment.

All this awaits the citizens not just of Pickering but of the entire Vale of Ryedale. Things might start small at Kirby Misperton, but new drilling sites and wells would then start springing up all over the place, threatening the Vale of Ryedale with a variety of industrial development that is completely out of character.

Hence the protests, made up primarily of local citizens, working closely with seasoned anti-fracking campaigners from outside the local area. It’s small at the moment, but that hasn’t stopped the police acting in the most arbitrary and authoritarian way imaginable – stipulating the total amount of time that people can ‘slow march’ in front of vehicles, photographing everyone, verbally abusing all-comers, threatening the full weight of the law, roughing people up at every available opportunity, and so on. I listened to a number of protestors’ personal accounts, and it became clear to me that this could only be described as ‘strategic intimidation’, planned off-site in police headquarters with a view to deterring others from getting involved. How far up the chain of command this might go was anybody’s guess – but, personally, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t ‘a Ministerial hand’ in there somewhere (as there was at the time of the miners’ strike), given that this benighted Government has deemed it to be a matter of national security that the UK should develop its own source of fracked gas for the future.

Briefly, its rationale for this is as follows:

1. That fracked gas can still act as a bridge between the era of hydrocarbons and the world of renewables + storage + efficiency that we’re now entering;
2. That the UK will still need large amounts of gas for the foreseeable future, as the ‘cleanest’ hydrocarbon fuel;
3. That the only way of reducing our dependence on dodgy suppliers like ‘Russia and the Middle East’ is to develop our own industry in the UK, selling ever-so-superior UK gas to grateful, union-jack-wearing consumers, at prices they’ll be told they can definitely afford.

All of this is complete bollocks.

Step by step, let’s just examine that rationale, as this kind of facile argument has to be systematically taken apart.

1. There are no hydrocarbon bridges available to us any longer.

That ever-so-convenient version of transitioning to a genuinely sustainable energy economy exploded at least five years ago. At that point, scientists started to educate politicians by explaining the idea of the ‘Global Carbon Budget’: how big a volume of greenhouse gases can we afford to emit into the atmosphere and still stay the right side of the kind of rise in average temperatures that could precipitate runaway climate change?

It’s not a pretty picture. To stay the right side of an average temperature increase by the end of the century of 2 degrees C (the now largely discredited political consensus), we can stick another 800 billion tonnes of CO2 up there; to stay the right side of 1.5 degrees C (a far safer upper limit), another 400 billion tonnes. With current annual emissions at around 35 billion tonnes, do the maths. And then clock the additional, extremely inconvenient fact that if all the hydrocarbon assets in which companies are already invested around the world were to be fully developed, that would put 900 billion tonnes into the atmosphere.

Lots of statistics: one very simple conclusion. NO NEW HYDROCARBONS. ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. AT ANY PRICE.

2. That applies just as much to the UK as to every other country in the world. NO NEW HYDROCARBONS. We have no exemption here. Either we’re serious about continuing to provide real leadership on climate change, or our Ministers are a bunch of cynical hypocrites. Government Ministers know these statistics inside out, reminded of them as they regularly are by the Committee on Climate Change. So draw your own conclusions about their moral rectitude.

And let’s not forget that fracked gas is absolutely not clean! Depending on levels of methane leakage (and there’s always methane leakage, as the evidence from the USA reveals), fracked gas turns out to be just as carbon intensive as coal!

3. This line of argument is so laughable as to beggar belief! Even if we went for broke on a UK fracking industry, regardless of geological, financial or environmental reservations, the absolute upper limit of current gas demand in the UK that could be met from UK fracked gas would be 10%. And that would involve tens of thousands of wells. So the impact on our natural environment and on the lives of countless thousands of people would be calamitous.

And why do it anyway? We’re not dependent on Russian gas, and the countries we do import from (Norway, Holland, Qatar and so on) are swimming in the stuff, and only too happy to keep us supplied (at prices we will never be able to match with our piddling little reserves here in the UK) way, way beyond the point when we’d better not be using any gas anyway – unless Government Ministers are still intent on cooking the planet with as much reckless abandon as the USA, Russia and Saudi Arabia would appear to be.

So the protesters at the gates of Kirby Misperton are fighting, on our behalf, for a very big prize indeed: a decent, compassionate, and secure future for the whole of humankind.