Power To The People

Across Australia (and indeed across the world), there has been a movement fighting the establishment and development of various forms of mining and energy production, including what’s known as ‘fracking’, which is a form of mining for oil and gas. It’s been a very strong movement in Gippsland in recent years, with a moratorium placed on any such mining for the time being by the state government, which has not reduced the feelings within the communities in Gippsland. Signs are on properties everywhere.

Anti-Mining Signs

Anti-Mining Signs

Also, the extent of apparent mining licenses is staggering. The blue outlines in the screen shot from the State government website represents the areas covered by potential mining licences for a large part of Victoria.

Mining Licences Victoria

Mining Licences Victoria (source: http://www.energyandresources.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/maps-reports-and-data/mining-licences-near-me/mining-licences-near-me)

However, a closer look shows that not all the licences shown on the State Government website detailed in ‘Mining Licences Near Me’ are about fracking or that they are active and/or approved. The following screen shots of the Mirboo North area clearly show that licenses have expired or have not been issued. That’s not to say that other areas don’t have active licenses, or that new ones can’t be issued.

Mining licences Gippsland

Mining licences Gippsland (source: http://www.energyandresources.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/maps-reports-and-data/mining-licences-near-me/mining-licences-near-me)

Mining licences Gippsland

Mining licences Gippsland (source: http://www.energyandresources.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/maps-reports-and-data/mining-licences-near-me/mining-licences-near-me)

I’m anything but an expert on these matters, but I’m always concerned when protests about anything verge on the hysterical and more so when radical political groups become involved. The debate then becomes one not of reasonable scientific discussion, analysis and the like, but more about ideology, where everything that doesn’t conform with that ideology is rejected outright. That said, it still behoves governments to do the right thing and to be seen to be doing the right thing, before any approval is given to potentially damaging activities. Until that is the case, the right to be concerned about new technologies and industries that have a potential to cause harm, is certainly valid.

Fracking protests (source: Gippsland Times)

Fracking protests (source: Gippsland Times)

Now considering that the same political groups believe that we are able to modify and adjust the planet’s climate at will, then I would think that there should be a reasonable chance that we could better understand the effects of such activities like fracking, before dismissing them outright. One of the arguments against fracking is that is it pollutes the water table; but is that the case, or even a potential likelihood, everywhere? In our region, I’m not sure where we draw our water supplies, but I hope that it’s not from the likes of the Tarwin River West Branch, which at the best of times looks like a toilet bowl after a bad curry. And when was the last time any of our water courses were checked for fertiliser and pesticide run-off, if water quality is of concern?

Tarwin River West Branch in flood (thick, murky grey/brown) - South Gippsland Victoria

Tarwin River West Branch in flood (thick, murky grey/brown) – South Gippsland Victoria

Tarwin River West Branch in flood (thick, murky grey/brown) - South Gippsland Victoria

Tarwin River West Branch in flood (thick, murky grey/brown) – South Gippsland Victoria

But what also concerns me are the alternatives, which are all too often presented as an ‘absolute’ by those same political groups, despite the clearly known issues that they often present. Wind farms are an option that is nearly always advertised as the ‘future’, yet so often don’t appear to deliver the results that are promised. Not only don’t they deliver on the purported energy outputs, but they are often the cause of significant unintended consequences. Ironically, those unintended consequences include the negative environmental aspects of manufacture, maintenance and installation (Bald Hills?), and the risk to many species of birds and bats, including endangered ones from their operation. They also have significant health impacts to nearby residents, affected by the sub-sonic noise that wind farms generate, but those concerns are often ignored. What I also find disturbing is the fact that these wind farms are a blight on the countryside. Pristine landscapes are suddenly overgrown with ugly, indolent, structures – what look like modern day forests after a bush fire.

Wind Farms - why no effort to blend them into the landscape? (source: Energy and Resources Victoria)

Wind Farms – why no effort to blend them into the landscape? (source: Energy and Resources Victoria)

Wind Farms - why no effort to blend them into the landscape? (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

Wind Farms – why no effort to blend them into the landscape? (source: Sydney Morning Herald)

But even a real forest after a bush fire is more pleasing to the eye and environment, and eventually will yield to new growth and return back to the soil. I have read comments from some that the windmills look beautiful, but I wonder if the same sentiment would be expressed if instead of generating electricity, they were pumping oil?

Forest after a bush fire - Dargo High Plains Victoria

Forest after a bush fire – Dargo High Plains Victoria

Australia is a country that has an abundance of natural resources for producing plentiful, cost effective and efficient power, and we indeed once had the cheapest electricity in the world. But Australia is now one of the most, if not the most, expensive countries for power in the world, so you have to wonder what happened? It’s very similar to one of my previous articles about the cost and quality of food; once we were world leaders with the best and cheapest food available and now we’re one of the followers. Obviously many have a vested interest in arguing their case, but the reality most certainly sits somewhere in-between and it’s not a good thing for Australians in general, with the way that we are headed.

Cost of Electricity (source: Renew Economy)

Cost of Electricity (source: Renew Economy)

The unavoidable truth is that the world depends on power (electricity) for everything that we do. Turn the power off for a day (as we appear to experience just about every second month where we live) and everything stops; we are ostensibly back to living in a cave. And as power costs escalate, the cost of everything else that’s dependent on power escalates, and so the social costs escalate in lock step (it’s already a major concern for the less well off). Do we really want to return to the caves, even if we could? If you think that you can, go to your power box and flip the mains switch and see how long you can go without it turned on. Turn your power off and set an example for everyone else to follow.

Caveman - burning wood in order to see in the dark (source: History How Stuff Works)

Caveman – burning wood in order to see in the dark (source: History How Stuff Works)

Now this subject is controversial to say the least and I by no means advocate open slather when it comes to mining companies and the like (I’ve dealt with large corporations for many years and, metaphorically, were you to shake their hand, you’d want to count your fingers afterwards to make sure they were all there, but I could say the same about political groups). However, I’m not blind to the realities of what modern life requires in order to sustain the things that we are used to enjoying and, more importantly, depending on for our very existence. When milk, bread or petrol prices rise a few cents, everyone rages, but when power bills go up 20+%, it all goes very quiet. At what point do we question whether we’re doing ourselves justice by demanding the closure of mines, coal and gas fired power stations, banning the development of new sources of energy etc and denying ourselves cost-effective and efficient power?

And I’ll leave this topic with something interesting that’s happened in the US under the Obama administration; US to become world leader in oil and gas thanks to fracking, ironically raising concerns that US fracking boom puts West African oil economies at risk.

2 thoughts on “Power To The People

  1. David Ruether

    I have been enjoying reading your well-thought and well-written pieces, and this is no exception. However, notwithstanding what appears to be a slight sop to the possible dangers of proceeding with fracking as a means to more plentiful and (presumably…) cheaper energy, I note that your argument against some alternative forms of energy production are partially aesthetic ones (hey, look up “frankentrees”, which are now visually blighting our [US] landscapes…), but it offers little attention to a far more important issue. We tend as a whole (with corporate interests often being the worst offenders) to take short-term views with energy issues. It is becoming increasingly obvious that if we pursue our current rates of population growth, fresh water use, and energy production, life itself on this planet (at least as we know it) will have an astonishingly short future duration. Some credible studies indicate that if we burn only our currently-known energy reserves, we will have doomed our ability to survive on this planet due to atmospheric changes, resultant climate changes, and the reaching of irreversible “tipping points” in those changes. If these studies are correct in their predictions, it would take only a few decades (a mere “pip” in time…!) to do this.

    In addition to this much more important issue, fracking is often done (with its attendant production of waste-water with “secret” ingredients, which is in itself a potential risk to water supplies) in areas where drilling through underground water supplies is necessary for reaching gas supplies. Claims are made that this is done “safely” (using steel and concrete lined shafts), but as anyone can easily observe, neither of these materials is very permanent over an even moderate length of time. Further, rather spectacular demonstrations are fairly common that gas has entered a water supply when a lighted match can be held near a running water faucet, with a gas explosion soon following. Also, in the US in areas where drilling for energy resources is common, it appears that earthquakes are becoming frequent in areas where they were formerly rare.

    I think we really need to consider very carefully (and globally) ALL of the issues around our energy use and resources, and to do that VERY soon if we are to have a future on this planet.

    –David Ruether

    1. Ray Post author

      I agree fully with what you’re saying. I guess my issue is that people tend to take up arms against single issues when it comes to energy supply, rather than looking at the entire picture and doing so pragmatically. We have people fighting fracking on the one side and we have people fighting wind farms on the other. I’m personally wary of all sides of the political/ideological/science/corporate spectrum, as everyone tends to have vested interests (climate scientists being no exception).

      In regard to climate change, we seem to have been at the ‘tipping point’ many times over the last two decades, nothing has changed, yet still the catastrophic tales keep emerging from the same people. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf; people no longer believe that climate change is a major issue, if an issue at all, given the results of many recent surveys. I’ve personally had many dealing with scientists that are working on alternative energy projects and despite their earnest beliefs that these projects will replace conventional power sources, the reality is that it’s not happening, or likely to happen for a very long time.

      If things are going bad, as some believe, then we need to adapt, not attempt to change things that we really don’t understand or have control over. The last thing we should do is make life miserable for people, especially the most vulnerable. Do we really want the cure to be worse than the disease?

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