Breach of Trust

Ill-informed and incoherent: the head of the National Trust talks nonsense on fracking.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 24th October 2013


“It’s not for me to judge the relative merits of fracking versus wind turbines.” So said Dame Helen Ghosh, the National Trust’s new director-general.

To this there are two obvious responses. The first is: yes, as the head of Britain’s biggest conservation group, this is just the kind of judgement you should be making. You’ve been appointed to lead this organisation, and a crucial component of leadership is making judgements. Because it is a public organisation, these judgements should be explained to your membership and to others who take an interest in what the Trust does.

No issue demands well-informed and morally coherent leadership more than climate change. Your predecessor, Fiona Reynolds, understood this. Here is what she said when she ran the National Trust:

“Climate change is already having a major impact on our properties and is one of the reasons why we need to act now, both to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to change. To avoid more severe damage to our cultural heritage, wildlife and countryside in the future, we need to move towards a better, more sustainable approach to energy use, based on energy conservation, localisation and greater use of renewable sources.”

Has the Trust’s policy changed since you took over? If so, have your members been informed? Or were you not aware of the policy? If so, would it not have been better to ensure you were fully briefed before speaking about it?

The second reponse to Dame Helen’s statement is: but this is what you have just done.

You told the interviewer from the Times two things about energy sources:

1. “I’m not saying we will never allow fracking on our land. … We have an open mind.”

2. “I think it is unlikely that we would ever promote or allow a wind farm on our land.”

So you have an open mind about fracking, but appear to have ruled out wind turbines. Either this is an arbitrary decision or you have “judge[d] the relative merits of fracking versus wind turbines” and taken a less negative view of fracking than you have of wind power.

Again, this represents a change in policy. In August the National Trust announced a “presumption against fracking” on its land. Were you aware of this policy? Has it changed, or were you, again, not properly briefed?

In either case your priorities seem odd. Quite aside from the trifling issue of climate breakdown and the damage this will do both to the wildlife and the human communities you claim to protect, there’s the small matter of the Trust’s mandate to preserve the beauty and tranquility of the countryside.

I grant you that wind farms, like drilling rigs, intrude upon the view in places where there are few other signs of industrial activity (though often plenty of agricultural wreckage, which the Trust somehow contrives to overlook). But fracking is a lot noisier than wind power. It involves more truck movements, more lighting, more dust and disruption. Unlike wind farms, it is not confined to the sea or the uplands, where the turbines are usually far from the nearest homes.

Your relative openness towards fracking could result from a misconception. You told the interviewer that shale gas is “’less bad’” than coal in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.” But it might not be less bad in terms of overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The key question is how much natural gas (which largely consists of methane) escapes during fracking operations. Methane is, over the short-term, a more powerful agent of global warming than carbon dioxide, and if leaks during fracking exceed a certain level they will negate the advantage that gas has over coal: namely that the carbon dioxide it releases when burnt is lower, per unit of energy produced.

This question has not yet been comprehensively resolved. But research conducted in the United States suggests that the leakage rate could amount to 9% of the gas extracted by fracking.

This appears to be far beyond the point at which gas becomes worse than coal. That, according to a study published in 2012, is a leakage rate of 3.2%.

A paper in the journal Climatic Change concluded that

“The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”

As I say, these are preliminary findings, and more work needs to be done on leakage rates on both sides of the Atlantic before we can draw reliable conclusions. But great caution should be exercised in claiming that shale gas causes less global warming than coal.

Overall, this is not a great start to Dame Helen’s tenure. It can only get better – or so we should hope.