Death by water

Now, as in the past, the sea functions as both giver and taker of life

Early on Sunday morning, a Polish yacht with seven crew was rescued 30 miles to the west of Orkney. It had been due to arrive in Aberdeen the previous day, but had lost radio contact and had not been heard of since Monday, shortly after leaving Keflavik in Iceland.

The yacht had been suffering engine trouble, but finally managed to restore communications late on Saturday evening. Coastguard stations in Iceland, Faroe, Shetland and the Western Isles had all tried to contact the vessel unsuccessfully, and the alarm had been raised for all vessels to keep watch for her.

The crew of the Syrenka were very lucky. Finding a vessel in the North Atlantic with no clues as to its whereabouts would be near impossible without the ship’s emergency beacon being activated. The ending of this story could so easily have been a tragic one.

For me the events were a reminder, as if one were needed, of just how vulnerable human beings are out on the sea. If technology fails, as it can and inevitably sometimes will, or if the weather turns against you, the relationship between the sailor and the sea becomes something altogether different – more threatening, and more honest, perhaps.

Living on an island means, of course, that your world is defined, in a physical sense, by the sea. But that world does not end at the shore. The sea itself is a part of island life, no less than the land upon which you live.

For as long as people have been here, the sea has provided food for them – a livelihood. It has also been their connection to the rest of the world, their highway to other places and other people. It is not a barrier, but a provider of opportunity.


That opportunity, though, can come with a high price. Death at sea has always been a familiar occurrence. The waters around Fair Isle are littered with the wrecks of ships from years past. The most famous of these wrecks is the Gran Grifon, part of the Spanish Armada, which went aground here in September 1588. On that occasion none of the ship’s 300 men were killed, though in the seven weeks that they were marooned on the island, 50 or so died from starvation.

Countless other vessels have met their ends in these waters too, and sometimes it has been islanders themselves that have been the victims. In September 1897, four island boats found themselves in danger after a north-westerly storm blew up unexpectedly. Two made it home safely, another was found the following day with four of its seven crew dead. The other boat was never recovered. Eight men were lost in total, leaving four widows, and 27 children without fathers.

People took those kinds of risks not simply because they had to. The risks were a part of their bond with the sea – a part of the bargain, you might say. There was an element, too, of the old Norse acceptance of Fate, which manifested itself in a refusal by many Shetland seagoers to learn to swim – something that continued until quite recently.

Safety today is taken extremely seriously, and accidents are far rarer than in the past. But every year in Scotland lives are lost by people on the sea, and fishing remains the UK’s most dangerous profession. The bond that people feel with the water that surrounds them is a strong one though, unbreakable even. People will always make their livings from the sea, and as long as they do, there will always be those who are lost.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.