Subsidies & Spinners

31 07 2012

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Oil lobbyist David Robinson in a recent column said we should let the public make up their own minds: “we can argue back and forth, back and forth using hand-picked examples of why each point of view is right. But that’s not helping anyone.” Of course he included with this statement with a few hand-picked examples.

I guess I do have personal ideology as Mr Robinson claims but I don’t agree it should be ‘put aside’ – it’s an ideology that favours all of the relevant information being made available to the public so we can make free, prior and informed decisions. Any opposition I have has developed since looking beyond the industry PR spin ($185m worth of lobbying in the US alone last year) and trying to take seriously the science related to human use of petroleum and its impact on the planet.

Beyond the climate implications, it seems useful to refer to people with direct experience of the industry, like Caleb Behn who acknowledges the income that can be derived from oil. Weighing these benefits with the negative social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts in his homelands, Caleb is strongly opposed and warns others to look carefully at the situation in British Columbia and Alberta.

The farmer speaking in Gisborne this week is in no way ‘philosophically opposed to the oil and gas industry’ – if Mr Robinson had read her story in The Washington Post he would have seen that Ms. Vargson and her husband used to maintain a herd of dairy cattle but got out of that business because of methane getting into their well water, a fact confirmed by the state regulators. The couple now work at other jobs and worry their son won’t be able to farm there either. Ms. Vargson permitted drilling of a gas well in the pasture behind her home, but the experience has raised serious doubts. Drilling “can be done safely,” she said. “I believe that the technology is there.” But she added: “I believe that for the most part the industry takes a lot of shortcuts.”

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) and UK Royal Society’s fracking report probably hasn’t been widely promoted because it omits some key facts: the RAE’s ex-President is Lord Browne, Chairman of Cuadrilla, the UK’s leading fracker. Lord Browne was head of the RAE until last year and owns 30% of Cuadrilla.

The RAE is also part funded by the oil and gas industry. In the last three years the RAE has taken £601,000 from oil companies with links to fracking. The same organisation has awarded cash prizes to BP engineers for their work in hydraulic fracturing.

The influence of the oil and gas industry on the RAE has not decreased with Lord Browne’s departure. His successor – Sir John Parker – is closely connected to the fracking industry. Before taking over at the RAE, Parker headed Anglo American with their fracking interests in in South Africa. Parker is a gas man through and through – some of his previous positions include non-executive director at British Gas, Chairman of National Grid Transco (gas distribution) and non-executive of BG Group (which has coal bed methane interests in Scotland).

Mr Robinson says renewables are too expensive, I agree. If it wasn’t for the one trillion dollars of annual public subsidies awarded to the fossil fuel industries and permissive legislation that allows continued access to relatively cheap fossil fuels, renewable technology would be affordable to most of us.

It was great to hear Rod Drury this week talking about how his software company may soon overtake Fonterra as New Zealand’s largest business. IT entrepreneurs are keen to move to Gisborne for the lifestyle and environment it currently offers. Some locals have been in contact with a biochemicals company in California that has huge potential and is interested in establishing a demonstration plant on the East Coast. These seem like far more sensible opportunities for our community to encourage than the dirty business of oil.


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