Let me start with an anecdote. It’s relevant so please bear with me. A friend in the village needed an MOT on his rather large, not very new 4 by 4. We’re a working community and many of the big Range Rovers and Toyotas you see on The Street are working vehicles, not status symbols. This one has had a hard life so the engine is no longer the lean mean petrol machine it once was, but it does the job. Into the garage, up on the ramp.
There was a problem. It didn’t pass the emissions test because the test machine was broken, registering only vanishingly small levels of NOX and particulates, so it had to go back the next week after the machine was recalibrated.
Next week came. Into the garage, onto the ramp. Still no NOX, no CO, no HC, no particulates, or at least levels too low to measure. After much discussion and head-scratching the car was put to the back of the queue and tested again at the end of the day. Start up, onto ramp — normal and perfectly safe emissions. The tester hadn’t been told that this was a conversion, a petrol engine which started on petrol and then, when it was warm, ran on compressed natural gas. The first two tests had been carried out on an engine at working temperature, the third when it was cold and running on petrol.
Petrol bad. Natural gas good.
In retrospect one of the oddest experiences of my life is a brief conversation I had with the then Minister for Energy and Climate Change. Well before his appointment we had corresponded about wind turbines and the desirability of replacing the oil and coal used in the UK energy mix with the low carbon alternative, natural gas. I knew he was an Oxford man, first class brain, you know the sort of thing. My respect for the ancient universities, those cities of dreaming spires and atom smashers, used to be unbounded: I imagined ancient halls and lecture theatres filled with eager students, their wise philosopher-lecturers equipping them with the mental tools to tackle any problem and any positions of power their undoubted intelligence entitled them to occupy. As the years have gone by I have discovered that respect is in many ways unfounded.
Before my disillusionment I would have expected a Minister of the Crown to be on top of his brief, to be fully au fait with the pros and cons of various energy mixes. The replies I got were essentially just the party line – renewables good, wind farms good, CO2 the devil’s spawn. You can imagine the sort of thing, regurgitated no doubt by some lowly spad and submitted for the great man’s hurriedly-scribbled signature. However, even before his appointment to higher office, it seemed to me that he was failing to grasp the opportunity that an abundant, low carbon and clean fuel would present to our industry, our environment and our prosperity. Cut to a meeting in my town which the great man was to address. Seeing me – he is punctiliously polite – he came to shake my hand. “Julian, great news. Solar power, solar’s the thing. Panels are really cheap. We can put them on roofs…”
“Yes, Minister. But you’ll still have to store the energy.”
For a second, for a revealing second, his face went blank. I realised that he didn’t know. The Minister for Energy didn’t know that you either use electricity at once or you have to store it in a battery or up a hill or… well, there are a few options, none of which are very efficient. He had not been briefed.
He has moved on, leaving behind another ‘renewables good, carbon bad’ parrot, another Conservative minister whose policies will weaken the UK and make the years ahead colder and darker than they need be.
Our cities are polluted by engine emissions. Energy prices are so high that our poorer subjects are forced to turn down the thermostats and shiver. Frack, extend the gas grid, enabling people to stop heating their homes with oil or, even more ridiculously, electricity. Ban commercial vehicles and buses from entering inner cities unless they have the capability to run on compressed natural gas.
Which brings me to this Mail on Sunday article …
The ‘fracking tzar’, Natascha Engel, has resigned because the government is ignoring the chance to revitalise the North of England, ignoring the chance to make our industry more competitive, above all and most shamefully ignoring the chance to make better the lives of the old, the poor and the sick who spend more of their income on home heating compared to the sort of people who infest the corridors of power. And, incidentally, the government is also missing the chance of reducing our carbon footprint by a substantial percentage. Petrol is mostly carbon, so when you burn it it turns into mostly CO2. Methane (CH4) is mostly hydrogen and when burnt it turns into CO2 and H2O – that’s water vapour to you and me. Half the CO2 per unit of energy.
Ms Engel says: ‘We have the evidence, but the only thing that’s stopping a review is the Government. Yet [Energy Secretary Greg Clark] is refusing to budge and time is running out. If the Government continues to listen to campaign groups rather than science, then he is effectively putting an end to fracking in the UK.’ She adds: ‘Firms have invested hundreds of millions of pounds. They did all this on the basis that Government policy would be rational, that it would be scientific. But it’s not.’
Remember the MOT test I mention above: clean air in our cities, low carbon, lower burden on the NHS from pollution-related diseases. Remember the cost of foreign oil and gas, think about the balance of payments benefits, remember that we’ll waste less CO2 than moving gas and oil from the Gulf.
Rational, Ms Engel? This lot? That would involve facing down the activists, standing up for the little people who don’t march and shout, who just get on with their lives. And it would also need the Minister to be on top of his brief.
Not just that. He’d have to have a spine.