In an age of uncertainty, where the future seems hardly assured, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the all-too-human wish for security has manifested in a host of dogmatic responses, including religious extremism and the continued pursuit of economic growth at all costs. Meanwhile, secular Westerners frequently end up becoming extremely busy, often because they’ve maxed out on credit and need to work like maniacs to service their debts. Then, when taking the meagre leisure time they can grab, they might even pursue extreme sports (bungee and BASE-jumping, wing-suit flying etc), probably because a massive adrenaline-rush is the only way they can allow themselves to experience emotions that correspond with the zeitgeist.
Add then to this age of extremes, peak oil – “the point when further expansion of oil production becomes impossible because new production flows are fully offset by production declines”  – and you get extreme energy, the oil industry’s attempt to suck the last remaining drops out of the planet in order to feed what G.W. Bush himself referred to as our ‘addiction to oil’. Coupled with waging wars to seize the last remaining productive oil-fields in the world, the pursuit of extreme energy has become another part of the ‘Business as Usual’ approach, which has for decades been busily burning fossil fuels, regardless of the consequences.
The technical term for sucking the planet dry is the ‘extractive industries’. In the Gulf of Mexico, the North Sea and now the Arctic waters, which are increasingly opening up due to the melting polar ice, the extractive industry is risky deep-sea drilling. In Canada it’s the Tar Sands, where thousands of hectares of ancient Boreal forest – a traditional home to native peoples and millions of migrant birds – are being gouged away to leave open pits the size of cities and vast toxic lakes, all in the pursuit of the underlying sticky bitumen, that then has to be further squeezed to yield a few barrels of crude.
Meanwhile in the U.S. extreme energy takes the form of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’. This technology has been developed to drill deep into the Earth in order to extract methane, or ‘natural gas’, which as far as greenhouse gases go, happens to be one of the worst for contributing to global warming. Employing millions of gallons of water and nearly 600 chemicals – all forced under intense pressure down into the rock to fracture it and thus to release the trapped gas – fracking is not by any stretch of the imagination an environmentally friendly process. Roughly half of the highly toxic water comes back out, and, as so-called ‘processed water’, its storage is problematic, with spills often occurring. 
‘Gasland’, an award-winning film by Josh Fox, exposes the terrible consequences of this technology.  Injected with plenty of gallows humour, the film is nevertheless shocking viewing, documenting how American citizens in the vicinity of drill sites suffer from dangerous levels of escaping gas and polluted drinking water, which adversely affects their health and their livestock, and also harms wildlife.
Now companies such as Cuadrilla and UK Methane are planning to frack for shale gas in Britain. And despite some initial setbacks, with two earthquakes having been caused near Blackpool, the government has given the green light to these companies to proceed, granting licences for large areas of the British countryside, including the Mendip Hills where I live. Additionally, work is now beginning on another Faustian project here in Somerset – Hinkley C, one of a new generation of nuclear power stations planned for the UK.
In responding to protests about these extreme sources of energy, companies and governments are eager to peddle various myths and inducements. How will we keep the lights on, they ask, if we don’t invest in these technologies? Decreasing national energy consumption is never on the agenda – even though our housing stock is generally in a poor condition and could benefit from proper insulation, which would in turn reduce fuel bills and fuel poverty, along with the numbers of elderly people dying in winter.
Green-washing is another strategy used to justify extreme energy. Nuclear is neatly labelled as ‘low carbon’ – even though the footprint of a nuclear power station from cradle to grave is massive – and the nightmare legacy we’re leaving for future generations, its highly radioactive waste, is brushed under the carpet.
Denial is another means to justify the ends of big business – a standard myth is that renewable energy sources would never meet our energy needs. Plus public opinion has been divided on wind-farms (even though we’ve long accepted the armies of pylons snaking across the landscape) and wind-power is only a part of the spectrum of renewable energy sources available.
However, the big carrot in favour of big energy business is, of course, job creation. And never mind if those new jobs are seriously detrimental to workers’ health – diseases such as cancer take time to develop and cannot be conclusively linked with industrial causes. In an age of economic austerity, people are increasingly desperate.
The relentless activity of all these fossil fools can seem unstoppable. And yet, parallel to the age of extreme energy, if you look carefully, another reality is emerging. Here in Somerset we’re not just busily campaigning against fracking and Hinkley C, but are simultaneously witnessing the birth of a range of positive energy solutions.
Tellisford Mill, which lies on the River Frome just outside the town, is a Saxon mill site, featured in Magna Carta. It was in a ruinous state when its current owners acquired it – but after much work, it was restored to power in 2007. Employing a metal screw turbine, this ‘water-to-wire’ system now generates sufficient electricity to supply residents’ needs, and to feed surplus electricity back to the grid.
Part of the Mendip Power Group, Tellisford is one of a number of micro-hydroelectric mills on the Frome and Mells Rivers. Along the 13-mile stretch to Freshford, where it joins the Avon, the Frome falls 50m, allowing for 26 mills, one every 0.5 miles, and several other mills have now installed turbines. Beautifully, of course, when water is discharged at the end of a tailrace, it’s as clean as when it entered, and can simply continue downstream to generate more power.
It’s been calculated that harnessing the power from all the streams and rivers in the UK could produce 10,000 GWh per year, enough to supply 3% of national generating capacity. It doesn’t sound like much, but if we combined energy conservation with a range of positive energy solutions could the UK really avoid extreme energy sources?
Estimates suggest that Hinkley C may provide around 6% of the nation’s electricity needs. Construction is to be carried out by French giant EdF, one of the world’s largest energy companies. Ahead of this new nuclear power station becoming operational, it’s worth noting that just six companies are currently responsible for generating 99% of the UK’s electricity. These six – an extremely small number where energy production is concerned – effectively dominate the market and no doubt have a strong lobbying influence on government policy.
Buyer beware – although new nuclear power stations being built here will not be financed through public money (i.e. taxes), consumers will pay through future increases in their fuel bills. Perhaps this is one of many good reasons to consider switching to green providers, for example Green Energy, Good Energy, or Ecotricity? These companies encourage the development of electricity generated from renewable sources – the wind, the sun and the sea – and from green gas, often made from food waste.
And despite the myths to the contrary, there is in fact sufficient evidence to confirm the possibility of generating enough clean, green energy to supply our needs. Figures from the No Need for Nuclear campaign show that in 2010, 80% of the UK’s demand for electricity was generated from burning fossil fuels – one of the major causes of global warming – while 13% was from nuclear, with 6% from large-scale renewable energy production (such as wind-farms), and a remaining 1% saving from efficiency. However, using detailed research data, No Need for Nuclear has projected that by 2020 it would be possible to have 77% generated by large-scale renewables, 6% by small-scale renewables, 12% by micro-generation, 5% saving from efficiency, which, with neither fossil fuels nor extreme energy in the mix, adds up to 100% of demand in 2010. 
Meanwhile, citizens everywhere are taking back the power from the extreme energy giants. According to Positive News, in Germany 51% of renewables are owned by citizens, whilst here in the UK, a new coalition of groups, including The Co-operative, the National Trust, the WI, the Church of England and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is calling for this new, localized approach to generating energy, and to reducing the amount of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere. 
Here in the market town of Frome where I live, Jensen Button, our most famous local celebrity, is celebrated for burning petrol at extreme speeds on a Formula 1 racetrack. Less newsworthy, perhaps, but a far more significant contribution to the future has been the town council’s recent announcement that the solar panels on the roof of the town’s most popular central venue, the Cheese and Grain, had reached a milestone – having generated £1,000 worth of electricity in the two months since they were installed.
With visions of electric cars one day rolling up to recharge in the Cheese and Grain car-park, might that roof be another example of how the future could look if we stopped believing the energy giants’ myths? If we do so, the surprise is that there are many British jobs to be found in positive energy solutions. In fact, The Campaign Against Climate Change, supported by several trades unions, has calculated that up to one million new jobs could be created by meeting targets to reduce carbon emissions. These ‘climate jobs’ would be in factories that make the infrastructure for generating renewables – such as wind and marine turbines, and solar panels – and then in installation and maintenance; new jobs would also be created in areas such as manufacturing and installing home insulation; improved public transport; manufacturing electric cars and buses; and training and education in all these sectors. 
One of the benefits of consciously living with and accepting uncertainty is that although we cannot be sure of anything, at the same time everything and anything is possible. This means that it’s up to all of us to co-create the kind of future we’d prefer. So why might a picture of clean, green energy and the creation of a million new jobs still seem remote from current reality? The answer is that we’ve been steadily moving towards this age of extreme energy for several decades now. It’s been the inevitable consequence of the values and beliefs of our dominant culture and of our economic system, neoliberal capitalism. Now our work is to inform ourselves of what else is possible, and to help to make it become a reality, before it’s too late.
- Chris Skrebowski, editor of Petroleum Review magazine
- For more information visit www.frack-off.org.uk
- To see a trailer of Gasland, visit: www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZe1AeH0Qz8