DJ Taylor: Fracking is a highly explosive issue

Shale mining might yield cheap gas, but there's one small problem: all fossil fuels run out. Plus, strange influences
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The Independent Online

After the Government's decision to allow prospecting for shale gas to recommence off the Lancashire coast, several newspapers offered helpful explanations of the procedure known as fracking. According to the gas industry's finest, this involves drilling rather more than a mile vertically beneath the earth's surface and then horizontally for the same distance. Water, sand and chemicals are pumped down the hole, after which the pressure splits the shale and releases the gas. As for the chemical cocktail that does the business, nearly half of it is apparently forced back up to the surface, to the detriment of water supplies and the surrounding soil.

Great claims have been made for this miracle of engineering. Lord Browne, the former head of BP, has suggested that it could bring 50,000 jobs to the UK. The US gas industry reckons it could improve on this figure a dozen-fold. An American gentleman in a suit of oilskins, interviewed somewhere south of the Isle of Man, assured us all that, hot-damn, he could get the juice flowing by the end of next year if everything went according to plan. But whatever one may think of fracking – and neutral observers will perhaps have noticed that France and Germany have banned it outright – the environmental row that has blown up in its wake made me wonder when politicians will finally get around to addressing the almost elemental deception that lies at the heart of the Western consumer package.

This is that fossil fuel, whether shale gas, coal or oil, is a finite resource, that it will eventually run out, that the materialist lifestyles of the West (and increasingly the East) depend on it, and that at the moment hardly anything has been done about the small matter of replacing it.

At some point in the next decade or so an exceptionally courageous politician will have to stand up and explain to the electors certain of the economic and social consequences of living in a world where fossil fuel is in sharp retreat. In the meantime, all we get are budget statements about the desirability of cheap gas, the prospect of more seismic disturbances off Lancashire, and excitable Americans chasing after the black gold with the same dogged enthusiasm that their ancestors brought to the extermination of the buffalo.

One never expects very much from the public pronouncements of sports personalities, but the round of Formula One drivers' responses to the situation in Bahrain made particularly depressing reading. Following publication of a 58-page Amnesty International report alleging "torture and use of unnecessary and excessive force against protesters", and an on-going hunger strike by the jailed human-rights leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, it had been suggested that today's race might usefully have been boycotted. But the sport's elite were far from convinced.

According to Sebastian Vettel of Red Bull: "We should go there and race and not worry about something that is not our own business." McLaren's Jenson Button referred the matter upward: "I look to the governing body to decide... I don't know all the facts, hopefully they can make the right call."

But Mr Button's modest profession of ignorance seemed a model of sweet reason when set against the stark realism of the former F1 champion Damon Hill: "Human rights organisations have had their cases heard. No one is under any illusion. But we also have a responsibility to our fans."

On the other hand, perhaps we should be grateful to Mr Hill for his altogether bracing candour. After all, it takes guts to admit that the interests of your television audience are more important than the showing up of an autocratic regime which suppresses democratic protest.

As for the Bernie Ecclestone line about "not getting involved in politics", all modern sport beyond a Tiddlywinks contest has a political dimension, and it is disingenuous of him to pretend otherwise. It is worth pointing out, in this context, that the mid-century decline in oil stocks will have several distinct advantages: one of them may very well be the end of motor-sports.

As a general rule, much-trumpeted lists of "influential" people end up missing the point. This year's Time magazine roster was no exception. According to its compilers, the rundown of people whose "ideas, innovations and actions"are thought to be "shaping the world" include Adele (a singer), Her Majesty the Queen (a head of state), the actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Craig, and Philippa Middleton, sister of the Duchess of Cambridge and described in a citation written by someone to whose sense of humour I doff my cap as "a latter-day Mona Lisa".

The Shorter Oxford definitions of "influence" nearly all mark it down as an oblique form of power. And how much power does Miss Middleton exercise, you wonder, other than over hemlines or the sales of celebrity magazines. To scroll further down the list, which includes such conspicuously powerful figures as the actress Jessica Simpson, is to suspect that the widespread dispersal and anonymity of the typical 21st-century power broker has escaped the Time staffers.

It could be argued, in fact, that the really influential people in 2012 are the ones who don't appear on lists – the devious financiers sitting in their mid-western silos fixing international commodity prices; the fine minds busily at work in the City, undermining the British tax system.