. Drilling for Oil - A Global Problem on Our Doorstep | London Progressive Journal
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Drilling for Oil - A Global Problem on Our Doorstep

Sat 18th Apr 2020

Sometimes it takes a threat to our own neighbourhood, our own county or country, before we wake up to what is happening across the world. It will take food shortages before we accept that industrial farming is gradually killing the soil that all life, bar marine life, depends on. It will take repeated storms and flooding to get the message that weather patterns really are changing; that places are becoming too wet, too dry, too hot – but not too cold. It will take the flooding of coastal cities before everyone acknowledges that the Arctic, Antarctic, the permafrost and glaciers have melted and the sea-level risen because humans have heated up the earth.

By then it will be too late. The damage will have been done. To be honest, we won’t experience the effects of the carbon emissions we are, right now, pumping up into the atmosphere for another 20 years. Climate change is happening now and it will be bad. We can’t go backwards. All we can do is to make it not as bad as it could be (i.e. killing most of the life we know). The floods, the melting of the ice, the wildfires – that all comes from what we did some years ago.

The conversation has gone on for far too long. In 1972 the Stockholm Declaration first laid the foundations of contemporary environmental policy. The first World Climate Conference was held in 1979. Thirteen years later, the 1992 Earth Summit (dealing with the environment and sustainable development) was held in Rio de Janeiro. Since then there has been a constant succession of conferences on development, climate and the environment, including the yearly Conferences of Parties (COP), the UN conferences on climate change. The first Cop conference was held in 1995. 1997 gave us the Kyoto Protocol, but it was another 8 years before it came into force.

In 2015 Paris hosted Cop21, ending with an agreement that the UK ratified in 2016. In April 2018 it was announced that the UK would be the first major economy to examine how it would meet its commitments and review its long-term target to cut carbon emissions.

Later this year, Glasgow will host Cop26. Note the number: 26. That’s how many times the ‘world’ (aka politicians and business leaders as well as environmentalists) have met to discuss the problem, and we are still nowhere near seriously addressing climate change. The ideas are there. The proposals are there. The ‘in-place-by’ dates are there. Real actions are not so visible.

On May 1st 2019 the UK Parliament declared a climate change emergency. Big deal? No. It simply demonstrated the will of the Commons on the issue, but it does not legally compel the government to act. Environment Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged there was a climate "emergency" but did not back Labour's demands to declare one. In other words, we’ll make the right sounds but not implement the very necessary actions.

What about all the local authorities? It seems they take things more seriously – or perhaps they are closer to the people. According to a list dating from early February, 67 percent of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils have declared a Climate Emergency, plus 8 Combined Authorities/City Regions. Many of those authorities have committed to target dates for net-zero emissions, ranging from 2030 to 2050. This only applies to the authorities’ emissions, not the general public’s, but it does encourage us to follow their lead.

Among the declarations is Dorset Unitary Council. However – and there is always an ‘however’, no target date for actions or results is given. Seeing that the motion was backed by 69 councillors, with only two against and six abstentions, you would think they’d give a target date. Again, right noises but little action.

Surely, politicians and global business should be taking note of what is already happening to the climate – while the UK was hit by weeks of storms and floods, Australia burned. Yet Australia’s Prime Minister refused to accept those horrendous wildfires had anything to do with climate change. For too many people, their lives were destroyed. For the ‘climate deniers’ it is business as usual. In the UK it means building more houses on flood plains and installing more of the same flood defences, despite the fact that they’re really not working any more. And in case you didn’t know, in 2010 the Labour government’s plan for flood defences got cancelled by David Cameron’s austerity policy. In Australia business as usual means carry on mining and exporting coal.

The Paris Agreement aimed at keeping the global warming to 1.5 degrees. We can no longer achieve that. Even keeping the warming to 2 degrees would require us to pretty well stop everything now. The global refusal to actually act is putting us on course for 3-4 degrees warming; with sea levels rising and extreme weather events getting worse, we face chaos and disaster. So - the target dates themselves are questionable. For one thing, aiming to be ‘net-zero emissions’ by 2050 makes us think ‘we’ve got 30 years, no need to hurry.’ At least the EU is calling for a target date of 2030.
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There’s every need to hurry. Report after report is coming out from worried, despairing scientists, observing and recording how much more rapidly climate change is happening. Everything is speeding up. The latest news is that polar icecaps are melting 6 times faster than in the 1990s. What climate action might have been expected to happen by 2040 could now happen by 2030 or 2025. New models on climate sensitivity are showing big increases in global temperature.

Here and there authorities and courts are taking the right decisions, based on the rule that every decision, every development, must now take climate change into account. Bristol Airport’s expansion plans were refused on ‘environmental grounds’ by local councillors, A third runway for London Heathrow was ruled as illegal by the court of appeal, because ‘ministers did not adequately take into account the government’s commitments to tackle the climate crisis’.

Which puts Dorset Council in an awkward position.

They are being asked to approve a planning application by South Western Energy Ltd. (SWEL) to ‘allow for the drilling of a single vertical well for the appraisal and production of oil, together with the establishment and construction of the site compound’ in the village of Puddletown. If enough oil is found, they could be extracting it for the next 20-25 years. That’s hardly going to help the UK’s ‘net zero emissions’ target of 2050.

With the climate emergency now being one of the main concerns of the public, it goes without saying that first in the queue of objectors were the parish council and residents of Puddletown. It’s bad enough worrying about global climate change, but when one of the causes turns up on your doorstep that’s another matter entirely. (It’s worth noting that fracking at various English sites, though given permission by the government, has so far failed to actually produce any gas, largely due to determined residents and their supporters getting in the way, plus some good science.)

SWEL’s justification is: “Oil is critical to transport requirements and will likely remain so in the near term as cars may be adapted to electrification and alternative fuels but aircraft, shipping, military vehicles and large goods vehicles are currently, due to their engine capacities, less adaptable to conversion.”

Wrong. Many manufacturers are already following that path. DAF and Tesla are selling them, and as the Irish Baku transport team says: ‘The most exciting thing about the arrival of electric HGVs has to be the environmental benefit. Any truck that can produce zero carbon emissions over the course of its lifetime is a world-changing investment worth making.’

It doesn’t mean electric HGVs will be here tomorrow, but they will be here and probably quicker than SWEL would like to think. As new cars are scheduled to be ‘all-electric’ by 2030 (and depending on climate events, that date might be sooner), then this well could prove to be ‘surplus to requirements’.
At a Council meeting on February 18th Kira Robinson, a member of XR, put a question to the councillors. ‘This proposal,’ she said, ‘is obviously inconsistent with the Council’s efforts to move towards a more sustainable future for Dorset…. The Government’s own wildlife adviser, Natural England, Dorset Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency have all criticised the application’s flawed ecological assessments, especially regarding the threat of pollution to potable water supplies.’

Apparently the drilling could go through one of the local aquifers, prompting people’s real concerns about potable water pollution. SWEL promises to return the proposed site (currently part of an arable field) to its former state after drilling is finished – in two weeks, no less. How will they repair the compacted soil that will have been contaminated and made inert by the surfacing materials?

Kira Robinson pointed out in her question to the Council that the Dorset Council’s draft 4-year plan had said “It is clear that the climate and ecological emergency must inform the council's decisions and actions for the foreseeable future". Well, that didn’t last long. The approved 4-year plan has watered that down to something meaningless.

In reply to her plea for the Council to show leadership in saying no to this proposal, the response from Cllr David Walsh leant heavily on ‘government policy’ on minerals and energy that, of course, the Council has to follow. Not to do so would cost them money. He said that ‘Dorset hosts nationally important energy minerals which society is still dependent upon until such times as human energy needs can be entirely decarbonised.’ The thing is, you encourage businesses to invest in renewables by not supporting new fossil fuel projects. You can’t carry on as usual until energy is entirely decarbonised. It doesn’t work that way. But, claims Councillor Walsh:

‘Dorset Council is not in a position to refuse planning permission for oil and gas development on climate grounds. Furthermore, it is unlikely that Dorset Council would be able to change its local policies to resist hydrocarbon development on climate change grounds unless and until there is a change in national policy.’

Poor powerless Council. Not brave enough to do what the earth needs, not as brave as many authorities that are aiming to be net-zero by 2030, and certainly not as brave as Cheshire East Unitary authority that has a target date of 2025.

That all sounds terribly reasonable until one considers the facts that David (‘greenest government ever’ to ‘get rid of all the green crap’) Cameron’s government:

Cut down the feed-in tariffs for small solar panel installations in 2015, a real blow to people who wanted to go green but couldn’t afford the total cost. Under Theresa May, tariffs were scrapped altogether in April 2019.
Also in 2015, the government introduced strict regulations which effectively banned onshore wind farms in England. This year Boris Johnson has given the go-ahead for wind farms because the lower prices of wind farm energy makes it significantly cheaper than other forms of low-carbon electricity. However, Scotland’s wind farms are way ahead, and are on track to supply 100 per cent of its needed electricity in 2020.

And, regardless of climate change, the Conservatives love fossil fuel (and, through their lobbyists, fossil fuel companies have a huge influence on their politics and policies) they:

Have consistently backed fracking and although that is confined to England and on hold, they would be quite happy to allow it in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty such as West Dorset.
Continue to subsidise fossil fuel companies at a bigger level than renewable energy, and spend more on fossil fuel than the rest of the EU. Germany, for instance, provided the biggest energy subsidies, with €27bn for renewable energy, almost three times the €9.5bn given to fossil fuels. And the UK’s nuclear energy has historically got more funding than renewables.
Give tax breaks to major oil companies. According to DeSmog: ‘Since 2015, the Treasury has given the industry tax breaks worth £2.3 billion’. DeSmog also reports that UK ‘is the worst of G7 countries for ‘hiding’ fossil fuel subsidies.
In 2018 a Platform report showed that, via the government’s Prosperity Fund, money earmarked to support overseas development had been spent on supporting China’s fracking industry, to the tune of £2 million.
The Prosperity Fund also financed oil and gas projects in India, Brazil and Mexico. Twelve of the 16 fossil fuel projects funded by the Prosperity Fund reference the creation of “opportunities for international, including UK businesses”, or an “improved business environment” as an expected outcome.

And as Mike Small, editor of Bella Caledonia, wrote: In this week’s much celebrated budget we were told to expect a “Budget that put climate and environment first” but we got a fuel duty freeze and £27 billion more spent on roads”. Roads mean vehicles, means petrol, means oil.

Clearly, oil is there to be invested in, made money from by a chosen few. The corporate world is not environment-friendly, nor apparently worried about the effects of climate change. The environment-friendly Triodos Bank’s 2018 annual report. said that: ‘The world's top banks have poured US$1.9 trillion into fossil fuels since the adoption of the Paris Agreement.’

And surely, if government bodies Natural England and the Environment Agency are strongly critical of the Puddletown proposal, one could and should claim they are also part of ‘government policy’. They should be listened to.

Damien Carrington, writing in the Guardian, said that “There is no deadline to save the world. Everything we do now has to pass the climate test… Taken together, the justice and economic arguments make it imperative that every decision taken every day by governments, businesses and communities must pass the climate test: will it cut emissions? From power plants to buildings, transport to farming, projects commissioned today will be running well beyond 2030.” (My emphasis)

But, while West Dorset people fight against the Puddletown oil well, others in the northern part of West Dorset are fighting against a plan for a large solar park. Dorset’s a good place for solar energy as it is, despite the endless rain over the winter, rated as the sunniest county in England. Hence Dorset Council’s dilemma. If they back the solar park project and reject the oil well, they are recognising the climate emergency. If they back the Puddletown oil well and reject the solar park, they are saying climate emergency is unimportant.

And if they back both projects or reject both projects, the Council is suffering from a bad schizophrenic episode based solely on party ideology.

Because Natural England, the Environment Agency and Dorset Wildlife |Trust have heavily criticised SWEL’s ecological assessments, they have been asked to, well, provide something better. This means the closing date for objections has been changed to sometime in the future. So, if you haven’t already done so, now’s the time to make your objections known. Use this link:

https://plan.dorsetcc.gov.uk/Planning/Display?applicationNumber=WD%2FD%2F19%2F002866
Click on ‘Accept’ to access the application, and scroll down to ‘Comment on this Application’.

And keep up-to-date with the campaign:
http://www.fossilfreedorset.org.uk/ and https://www.facebook.com/pg/XRDorset/posts/

Lesley Docksey © 15/03/2020
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