Thursday, 31 July 2014

Libdems Pledge to Plant a Tree for Every Newborn

"Libdems will plant a tree for every baby born"  is a pretty cheesy headline but it is a good idea.  As an extension of The Forestry Commission's Big Tree Plant, it seeks to both help to protect the natural environment and foster community feeling; getting people involved and improving the neighbour.  Under the Big Tree Plant, 800,000 trees have already been planted.  The Libdem plan will see that extended to a further 750,000 trees every year for England and Wales.

Following some of the disastrous policies of the 1970s and 80s, in which many square miles of the country were put under a monoculture of non-native spruces, it is good to see a pledge to not only to manage and protect existing woodland more effectively, but to democratise the scheme and bring the benefits as close to people as possible.

If one is hoping to bring maximum benefit to wildlife, it is better to plant native species such as (but by no means limited to) oak, ash,  chestnut, sycamore, bird cherry, aspen, birch and rowan.  It is always good to be aware of the ultimate size an individual specimen is expected to grow: aspen for example can reach heights of over 20m.

If a community is intending to recreate a natural woodland, a mix of trees and shrubs will be necessary, planted in the knowledge that as the decades go by, the larger tree specimens will eventually overshadow and kill off smaller species.  This is all part of the natural progression,  with four main woodland cycle being recognised - pioneer plants, scrub and shrubs, small trees and finally mature woodland consisting of the biggest species.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a very useful page, giving a list of native species of trees and shrubs, along with a size guide.

When it comes to forestry, a very long term vision is needed: something we are not encouraged to think about in our day-to-day lives.  I am reminded of the story of an Oxford college who, some decades back, was facing a crisis.  The oak beams that supported the roof of the Great Hall had perished, reaching the end of their useful lives.  Meeting after meeting was held and alternatives sought, but no solution could be found by the dons.  Eventually the college steward was invited to yet another meeting and was finally asked his opinion.

"I wondered when you would get around to asking me," said the steward.  "You know that line of oaks at the college entrance?  They were planted in the same year construction of the Great Hall started over 500 years ago, so when these beams wore out, their replacements would be ready."

Now that is vision.

Friday, 18 July 2014

MH17. My reaction.

I am not just saddened by the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17, causing the death of 298 people, I am profoundly pissed off.

If it is not bad enough dealing with the threat of accidents and terrorism, the air traveller have to risk the attention of trigger-happy morons, who with the aid of high-technology weapons supplied by the power-hungry, take a pop at anything that happens to be passing overhead.

It is not the first time it happened. Nor, historically speaking, is Russia the only guilty party. The US has previous form too.

Whoever doles out these weapons should be equally liable, under international law, when they are misused by others.  In this case, although Mr. Putin is already on record as blaming the Ukrainians, I hope he sticks to his word, promised to Dutch premier Mr Rutte, that the inquiry will be thorough and objective.

My heart goes out to the families of the dead. My anger is for all those who feed war zones such as Eastern Ukraine.

As a postscript, why is it the US "leading calls" for an inquiry, as reported on the BBC news at eight o'clock this morning? Although they are welcome to pass on evidence, surely this one is for the Dutch and Malaysian authorities, in co-operation with the Ukrainian and Russians.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Why a Liberal? Why not something else?

I'm not a Conservative owing to its cynical view of humanity and refusal to engage with the better nature of people.
I'm not a Socialist because although collective action does have a role in society, the movement quickly dissolves into competing factions in its struggle to replace one elite with another.
I'm not a Nationalist because although there is a lot to be grateful for in growing up in a particular place, the place should not be romanticised and set up above all other places. That is the politics of Us and not Them.
I'm not a Green because although care of the Earth is vital, it isn't at the centre of everything. We are in politics to serve people first, but it would be irresponsible not to care for the planet too.
I'm a Liberal because I have a belief that the state is here to serve the individual, the family and caring for people who are not able to care for themselves; to encourage behaviour beneficial to wider society, while acknowledging that some human drives are destructive and selfish but allowing for those instincts too. 
In short, liberalism accepts people as they are, rather than what some might wish others to be.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Fracking and Anti-Fracking.

Fellow Liberal Democrat, Tessa Munt MP, asked for views on the proposed government legislation to enable developers gain access to resources under private property.  Tessa is anti-fracking, so my response probably will not be a pleasant read for her, but below is my initial reply.

Tessa, I will make several points.

1) You are correct. Renewables should be the priority for the UK. It seems though that the British public are against ANY form of development of the countryside. The Conservatives are pandering to this by promising a ban on further onshore windfarm development if they win power after the next election.
Research and development of renewable energy, combined with government subsidy of improving the energy efficiency of our homes and places of work, should be a priority. Perhaps the stamp-duty tax and business rates of properties could be tweaked to reflect the energy efficiencies of properties, as well as giving positive support to make buildings more energy efficient.

2) In my view, and in the view of the British Geological Survey, 300m is too shallow. In a paper cited in my block entry on fracking, the BGS says that prospects under 1000m should not be explored and developed. Although some prospects in the UK come into this zone, most are between depths of 1000 and 3000m. I am against development above this depth and the law of access should reflect that safety margin.

3) You state that hydrocarbons should be left in the ground to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. True, but that is not happening. Coal is currently supplying 30% of UK energy, and those figures are rising, thanks to cheap imports from the US. Surely it is better to exploit cleaner gas reserves and leave the coal in the ground?

4) It is interesting that you mention the Coal Industry Act. This provides precedent under the law.
Can any individual really claim ownership of the ground over a mile below their property? Similarly, if we owned the sky above our houses, an overflying aircraft would equally be guilty of trespass. It is important that legislations does recognise damage and the level of evidence should not be criminal (beyond all reasonable doubt) but rather civil, on the balance of probabilities. A civil body, perhaps advised by the BGS, should be set up to independently evaluate any complaint. This should be funded by a levy on exploration companies involved in onshore activities.

5) Energy security. One just has to remember this simple fact. Since the late 1990s, levels in production of both oil and gas from the UK sector have fallen by two-thirds. Please see my blog for a graph based upon DECC production figures.
What is clear is that Britain’s main focus should be making good on this shortfall. We are currently a net energy importer and this situation is projected only to get worse in the next decade. http://www.fraw.org.uk/publications/e-series/e03/e03-uk_balance.png

To summarise.
I am all for government subsidy into renewable energy and energy saving in our nation’s buildings. We should investigate methods of taxation that reward responsible owners and disadvantage those who make no effort to improve their properties.

1000m should be the minimum depth of development, not the 300m cited in the proposed law.

In order to further decrease greenhouse gas emissions, usage of coal to generate electricity should be completely phased out as soon as possible.
Precedent for the proposed law already exists. An independent body, advised by the BGS, should be set up to evaluate damage claims. This body should be funded by a levy on the energy companies.
The status-quo is not tenable. If we do nothing as a nation, refuse to develop the opportunities open to us, we are effectively washing our hands of the matter and in importing more energy, we are paying cash to export the problem and our responsibilities.

If you wish to support Tessa's point of view, her website can be reached here.

My previous blogs on fracking for beginners can be reached through this link.

I fully intend to look over the government's consultation paper on drilling access and give a more detailed account later.

UPDATE

The day after I published this blog, the BGS published their Aquifers and Shales; a series of interactive maps showing the proximity of shale prospects to drinking water aquifers.  It is especially useful as it gives both plan and section views, giving the vertical distance between formations.  On the basis of this information, it is expected that drilling will be prevented where there is a risk to drinking water.

The site also gives details of their water-sampling project, which establishes a base line of the current methane content in the UK's potable water aquifers.  This is something that the US failed to establish prior to their fracking industry going ahead.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Oil Exploration and Trident

There is a headline today in the Sunday Post: Tories blocked oil boom in the Clyde, Heseltine admits.
This is the kind of headline that really irritates me because it is inaccurate on several levels.  The obvious one of course is Heseltine never used the term “oil boom”.  This is a creation of a sub-editor for dramatic effect.  The more important point is that since drilling has not taken place, nobody knows whether there would have been, or still might be oil reserves in the Clyde.  To claim an economic boom for the region was thus thwarted is just simply wrong.  The real situation is that nobody knows.

In a separate article, MSP Chic Brodie (SNP) claims all this has been a cover up, implying that with malicious intent it is a fiendish Westminster plot to keep the Clyde poor.  He bases this claim that since Infrastata, an oil exploration company got a licence to drill off Larne, and the same geological formations exist under the Clyde, it is obvious that the Clyde area should also be explored.

Let us have a look at this.  Under the North Sea, there is a layer of sandstone (The Rotliegendes) that forms the reservoir for both Dutch and English gas reserves in the southern sector.  One possible place where it could be drilled onshore for exploration purposes is on the coast of Cumbria.  The only problem though is that the site is already used by the Sellafield nuclear power station.  The reason one does not drill for gas next to a nuclear power station is that of safety.

Similarly, during the Cold War, Polaris (and later Trident) armed boats were coming and going through the Clyde to the base at Faslane.  I think people are forgetting what those times were like.  Regardless of whether the threat from the Soviet Union was all that it was cracked up to be or not, if people at the time would have been asked what was more important: another patch of sea opened for oil exploration or the safe passage of our nuclear-armed fleet, the overwhelming majority at the time would treated the questioner as being some kind of lunatic even for asking.  We were not asked though because all such discussions about the movements of Britain’s nuclear fleets is of the highest secrecy.  There was enough trouble at the time with trawlers being mysteriously sunk, and submarines taking the blame, without in addition to that risking collisions between oil rigs and boats armed with nuclear weapons.

Worlds change and while Russia is no longer the ideological threat it once was, the rise of nationalism under Putin is increasingly sinister.  Unfortunately this strengthens the argument that a nuclear deterrent has to be maintained.  If I still had the mind-set I had in the Eighties, this would surely be my view.  I have changed though and am now disgusted by very ownership of nuclear weapons.  I would love to see Britain give them up.  While we still have them though, their safety must be ensured.  I am not arguing that the Clyde should never be drilled; with advancements in technology, perhaps it is possible to do safely now in the 21st Century what was not in the 1980s.  If the Scottish government wishes to see Clyde being explored, it should be a matter they raise with Westminster.  If deemed not safe, if one has to go, then indeed let it be the nuclear base.

It was not as if other parts of the west coast were left unexplored.  In 1998, I performed work as part of an exploration rig about fifty miles off the Isle of Lewis.  Once I got on board, I sought out the wellsite geologist.
“Why are we drilling here?” I asked.
“Ooh, can’t tell you,” was the reply.  “Tight well.”  [Meaning a well where all data access is closely controlled].
“How deep is the hole?”
“Eight and a half thousand feet.”
“Okay,” I said.  “I’ll tell you what I think you have, then you can say whether I am right or not.”  He agrees to this.
“Six and a half thousand feet of volcanic ash.”
“Actually,” the geologist admits.  “It’s seven thousand feet of volcanic ash.”
“Why on earth did you drill here?”
“It looked so good on the seismic!”  came the reply
.
There was another rig out there at the same time, the John Shaw (if I recall) which shows that companies did (and for all I know, still do) have access to other parts of the west coast.  It is just they didn't find anything then.  The only way they could know for certain is to drill.

I am sure the irony would not be lost on many that we may see others in the Yes camp, the Greens in particular, campaigning both to shut Faslane and to have no drilling in the Clyde.
 
What is disingenuous though  is for the Yes Campaign to claim that exploration was blocked to spite Scotland’s west coast; that the decision represents some form of economic treachery.   The decision not to drill the Clyde was obviously based upon grounds of safety.  


Friday, 23 May 2014

Media and a Duty of Care.

In this talk, TEDxHousesofParliement, film director David Puttnam asks whether the media has a duty of care towards the public. It is a good question. I was asked for my thoughts on the presentation by a friend of mine on facebook.

Certain sections of the media distort facts, either in the service of government to drive forward a given ideology or policy, or in the interests of a given corporation or social group. Press on the left do this too: it is not just a top-down affair.

 Differing perceptions are of course grist to the mill of debate. Debate can only be informative and educational however, if the facts are agreed, or if that cannot be reached, at least as honestly presented and as available to scrutiny as circumstance allow. If this does not happen, then the result is sophistry, which often as not, is what passes for political debate and reporting nowadays. A shorter label for it is "spin".

Puttnam mentioned another aspect that informs action and that is morality. Now, let us say that the media has a care of duty to present the facts. Obviously there are a lot of facts to any given topic; a media outlet, be it the BBC, Fox News or a blogger, probably cannot know all the facts but should present a picture based upon the facts available. This is different from spin insofar all the available facts have to be distilled into the story, and not just the selection of those that fit a particular agenda. This is difference between balanced reporting and spin.

Balanced reporting is also not the same as current practice: allowing two (or more) proponents to take to airwaves and have at each other. This has the illusion of balance but in reality it is a collision of spins and thus far more difficult to get to the real facts. The most celebrated case of this currently on the British media circuit is BBC's Question Time: a show when up to six flavours of spin (plus audience participation) take part in a mass tourney. It is of course very entertaining, modern day bread and circus for the politically interested, and occasionally truth does emerge. Its most useful purpose as far as facts are concerned is that audience member may pick pointers to where further details can be found. It is in no way a presentation that allows the audience to impartially judge a given issue.

Still, BBC Question Time and similar shows are better than the media monocultures that are the real target of Puttnam: the uninformative and biased tabloids, whether in print or on air. They present politics and many other issues with the sensibility of soap opera writers: that the participants are either idiots or scoundrels. Of course, politics, like all walks of life have their share of both but by the relentless presentation of everybody involved as such, it dulls the sensibility of those nurtured upon such fare. It is popular for a very simple reason: most everybody likes to be able to look down upon somebody else and what gives the illusion of empowerment more than a feeling of moral superiority? That feeling literally sells tabloids by the truckload. It is not a factual picture though and thus fails Puttnam's duty of care test. It discourages political involvement and breeds nothing but cynicism.

One can already hear the screams warning of censorship and yes, in a democracy one must have the freedom to be wrong in the opinion of others, especially if that somebody is the government or other organs of the state. At its heart, Puttnam is calling for honesty in the reporting of facts. The democratic process lies in the interpretation of those facts. We can still disagree over what they mean but if the facts are skewed or completely absent, then the basis of our democracy and freedoms are not even on foundations of sand. They rest upon nothing at all.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Clarkson, Childhood and Eenie Meenie.

I do feel sorry for Jeremy Clarkson.  That rhyme, Eenie Meenie Minie Mo, was sang constantly in my childhood.  It wasn't right but in the 1960s, 1970s and doubtless before, nobody told us children it was wrong.  Thus it became part of our schooldays and our play days.  It is as ingrained in my memory as the two-times table.

But like the times table, I don't have to recite it any more.  Sometimes when making an either-or decision, it comes, unbidden, into my head.  Owing to the offensive word it contains, there it must stay, forever unspoken except during discussions such as this.

Clarkson is a talented writer and presenter who not only can mould a new image using language, but also taps into the British stream of consciousness.  That rhyme is part of that stream for those of us who are older.  His mistake was to give voice to it.

As far as race relations in the UK is concerned, the situation has improved markedly since my childhood.  Real equality however, is still a battle being fought.  If he is guilty of anything, Jeremy Clarkson is showing poor awareness of the current situation; either that or he simply doesn't care.  I do hope it is the former.

The bottom line though is that Britain has moved on since the 1960s.  Clarkson should have too.