Saturday, 31 August 2013

US Congress vote on Syria: a precursor to western involvement in a regional war?

President Obama's announcement that he will give Congress a vote on whether to attack the Assad regime may seem like a step back from the brink of military action for now, but it is just as likely to re-boot a slide towards ever-deeper western involvement in a widening Middle East conflict.

No doubt Congress, egged on in the spirit of response to '9/11' (what has that got to do with the Syrian civil war?), will give enough legitimacy to Obama to launch the missiles at Assad and his men. Obama will proclaim that this is a ‘limited’ action. But far from being limited, in reality a precedent will have been created that will suck the west ever deeper into the Syrian civil war. The 'limited' strike will achieve nothing except to inflame the already insoluble carnage. Very little damage will be done to the Assad war machine. More atrocities from the Assad regime will follow (with the anti-Assad atrocities receiving less publicity in the west). The action will be condemned as a failure. But paradoxically this very failure will be used as the argument for further action by the west. Plans for 'no fly zones' will be drawn up and implemented and bit by bit we will be part of the war with the Assad regime.

 There will be the added danger that we are up against, in this dispute, not some isolated tyrant as in the case of the Libyan intervention, but a deadly combination of not just bewildering ethnic and political complexity but the involvement of forces with which the west is already almost at war. These include Hezbollah and Iran - not to mention a Russian presence with whom we could, in theory, actually come into military conflict. Remember the Russian's have their own military base in the Syrian port of Tartus.

The situation in Syria is so convoluted and so toxic (in many different meanings of the term) that the results of growing western intervention, will, in hindsight make western intervention in Iraq look like a blinding success by comparison. In Syria, realistically, the best that can be hoped for in the medium term is a cease-fire that will, for the foreseeable future, create an effectively divided country - with a severe danger of an internal civil war simmering amongst the rebels (and a lot of them no friends of the west). Even if western action did succeed in defeating the Assad regime, at very great cost, the ethnic divisions would remain, and rear up soon again, just as they have done in Iraq. Western involvement will make a mockery over our efforts to mediate between Israel and Palestinians since the Syrian civil war, with western involvement, will extinguish the already flickering hopes of progress. In a worst case, but still plausible, scenario, western involvement could promote a wider regional conflagration.

 It is tremendously ironic that the west is cranking up its expensive war machines for 'humanitarian' purposes, when Syrians inside the country are dying and starving. Yes, they want ‘their’ side to win and be helped by the west, or Hezbollah, or whoever to help them 'win'. But if humanitarian assistance is really our aim, and not just the use of this emotive appeal to promote more war, then we should be spending on genuine food, refugee relief, medical help, not in spending on the firing of tomahawk missiles.


Friday, 23 August 2013

DEFRA poised to cover up negative impact of shale gas on house prices

Owen Paterson's much publicised prospect of what appears to be a contrived attack on the 'rural economic' impacts (on house prices one presumes) of onshore windfarms is most likely to feature a big cover-up of the impacts of shale gas extraction on rural economies (and house prices!). DEFRA has commissioned a report on the subject of the impact of energy activities on rural economies (ie constituencies that are largely held by the Tories and subject to loss of votes to UKIP).


The simple fact is that there is no data on the impact of shale gas extraction on rural economies in the UK since, as yet, there is no shale gas extraction! Therefore DEFRA will be able to commission research on rural impacts of shale gas extraction safe in the knowledge that no impacts for shale gas will be discovered and that it can interpret the future for shale gas extraction as being wonderfully rosy.
Now, I have never heard of a report that has been commissioned by a government department about energy that does not support government policy and satisfies the political aspirations of the government in power. In this case DEFRA is under the control of a politician who doesn't like windfarms but does like fracking, and DECC is run by a politician that supports both windfarms and fracking. Hence the end result is likely to be a report that is moderately critical about the impact of windfarms on house price but says that fracking will have a clearly positive effect on the local economy.
In fact the evidence from the US, in so far as it is comparable, suggests that the impact of shale gas on house prices is likely to be significantly negative. I base this on a report done by academics at Duke University. They identified a positive effect on property prices associated with an increase in land values because of the mineral rights that go with them (in the USA), but, on the other hand, a very big negative effect (a 24 per cent decline) impact on property prices owing to fears about groundwater contamination from shale gas extraction.
Now the point to make in comparisons with the UK is that here mineral rights do not accrue to the landowners as in the USA but to the Government. This means that there will be no positive pressure on house prices UK if shale gas is extracted nearby, but only negative effects from perceived loss in value because of fears about pollution.
Now I am confident that, despite the uncertainty, such fears will be brushed off or consigned to report annexes by DEFRA in favour of headline attention to be given to allegations about declines in house prices caused by windfarms. In fact the research here is rather inconclusive, and does not imply a significant negative impact. There may be small effects at the time of the planning application process when anti-windfarm campaigners are in action, but little if any lasting impacts on properties close to the location of the windfarm.
In short, the danger to house prices is likely to be much higher in the case of local shale gas extraction than it is in the case of nearby windfarms. Of course this message certainly will not be broadcast by DEFRA. Instead there will be a lot of talk about extra money to local communities being made available (as in the case of winfarms), even though this will have no impact on house prices themselves. House prices, of course are the top concern in the world for many readers of the 'Daily Telegraph' and the 'Daily Mail'.  Fears about shale gas extraction will be brushed aside on the basis of analysis of 'objective' evidence. Of course as we social scientists know, what matters is what people's perceptions are, not what specially appointed government scientists say. In this case there is a lot of uncertainty revolving about how people interpret the uncertainty, if you see what I mean, and some evidence from the USA that pollution fears will have a significantly negative effect on property prices.
The history of energy policy in the UK is replete with Government reports written to satisfy particular interest groups and to justify what the Government held to be its policies. The reports may thus be erroneous, and do not stand the test of time. In recent years we have witnessed a string of government reports explaining, for example, how cheap nuclear power is. Eventually reality catachs up, as it will, no doubt, in the case of house prices and shale gas.
You can see a summary of some research into the impact of windfarms on house prices at
You can see the report on the impact of shale gas extraction on US property price at
 You can see some coverage of the proposed DEFRA report at:


Saturday, 3 August 2013

King backs solar after Monbiot attacked King for backing nuclear

David King, former Chief Scientist for the UK Government and perennial nuclear power champion has boosted establishment support for solar power by urging a major effort to ensure that solar pv can supply 'bulk power' at unsubsidised prices by 2025. You can see the article at:

 David King has, hitherto, appeared to put a high proportion of his efforts to combat climate change behind support for nuclear power, so this is a most welcome change of emphasis, though I suspect he has not yet realised the pointlessness of continuing to promote nuclear power. I don't know what has changed his mind.  I would like to think that my previous observation that the apparent wish of scientists to support nuclear power reflected their status as old males rather than that they were scientists has persuaded him to be a bit more forward-looking. However, probably he doesn't read my blog. I suspect that it is the reality of rapidly expanding deployment of solar pv at much reduced prices that has proved persuasive.
Some of you who are used to George Monbiot's support for nuclear power and sometimes quite outspoken attacks on support for solar pv may be confused by my headline on this blog post. It may be a bit postmodern, but it is still the case that George Monbiot DID attack David King for his support for nuclear power. This was back in 2005 when Tony Blair announced the need for new nuclear power stations, and David King joined in to support this argument. George Monbiot said:

'Sir David may have political reasons for “trying to sell” new nuclear power stations – at the Labour Party conference Tony Blair said he wants to re-examine the nuclear option...- but he would, I suspect, have as much trouble identifying a scientific case as he had at the meeting last month. The figures leave him stranded'

 I couldn't agree more with this comment, and George quoted a report from Amory Lovins which pointed out how uneconomic nuclear power was compared to renewable energy sources such as wind power. What has changed since 2005? Well, the nuclear industry's PR campaign that there was a new cheap generation of nuclear power stations has proved to be as nonsensical as all of such claims over the last 50+ years. But solar power has gotten a lot cheaper. So it is a pity that George Monbiot changed his view and decided to support nuclear power and started making prominent attacks on the viability of solar pv.

 You can see George Monbiot's blog post at:

 Meanwhile there is more bad news for nuclear power prospects (not that there is likely to be any good news!). EDF has postponed a 'decision' on whether to give final investment go-ahead to Hinkley C yet again.  A highly resourced PR campaign is dedicated to perpetuating the myth that the project still has life in it. The fact is that the Government has already offered better terms to nuclear than is being offered to renewable energy, so it cannot really be expected to go any further unless it decides to tear up Thatcherism and reinvent a nationalised energy industry. Ed Davey says about as much in another recent interview. See

Of course the Government seeks to keep up appearances that nuclear is not dead. There are still too many older males who cling to their youthful expectations for 'atoms for peace' that they learned at junior school in the 1950s!

The Government managed to pour balm on nuclear supporters at the time of the budget by offering a stupendous £10 billion of loan guarantees (and promises of 35 year contracts) for Hinkley C in June's budget. This surprised me and looked for a moment that the Treasury had been hit by something and made to offer a blank cheque for nuclear. But it seems that the PR effect, once again, may have hid something rather more modest. It is not just that the Treasury do not want to give the strike price that EDF want, or index it to inflation in the way that EDF prefer, or give (and this is the big one) an 'underwriting' guarantee for the whole project, but the Treasury loan guarantee itself may not all be exactly as it might seem.
It has been pointed out to me that something similar to what happened in the USA with nuclear power may be going on in the case of the Treasury ‘offer’. Despite the fact that the US Government is offering many billions of loan 'guarantees' for nuclear power, the only nuclear power projects (in South Carolina and Georgia) that are going ahead have what effectively amounts to cost construction 'underwriting' agreed by their state regulatory agencies. This is possible because their electricity companies are monopoly suppliers. But in other states the nuclear loan guarantees have proved unworkable. This is because the US Government has demanded that the nuclear companies take out insurance on the guarantees. The point here is that unless the state, at some level, offer an underwriting guarantee, the cost of insurance will be very large indeed, jacking up the required rate of return for the project up to much the same level as if the loan guarantees did not exist. The Economist, which discussed this situation in an article in 2010, mused that maybe this was a way of the Obama Government appearing to back nuclear power whilst in reality not offering a loan guarantee scheme that was as useful as it appeared in PR terms.

Could the British Government be involved in a similar exercise to the US Government? There could be more similarities between Conservative approaches and the Obama Administration than the mere sharing of election campaign advisers!
See the 2010 Economist article:

Like the Obama Administration, the British Government does not want to be held responsible for loading up the British state and taxpayer with the consequences of near-inevitable nuclear cost-overruns.
 Remember: nuclear power is a dead duck; it is just some people don't realise it yet!