Friday, 30 August 2013

Beauty of the night

Dusk is about to wrap itself around the penultimate day of August - a balmy evening following a warm and sunny day on the prairies of South Lincolnshire.

As the evening quietens there is the distant drone of combine harvesters flat out as they have been all day in fields of wheat and barley, creating a dusty plume and the sweet, husky smell of freshly mown sheafs.

It’s barely 8.30 pm, twilight is fading fast and the local birds embark on a last cacophony of celebratory singing and chirruping before acquiescing to the night.

By now, the garden is alive with insects of the dark, a myriad moths flitting amongst the fading lavender heads and the bright open yellow blooms of evening primrose.

The warm air is rich with heady scents, a toxic mix for our undersung flying heroes of this hour who thrive and live their short lives by the smells of late summer evenings and early autumn nights.

Apart from this transitional time of the year when we might still find occasion to wander through our garden or local park as dusk falls, we tend to largely ignore these night-time creatures - perhaps we fear them, or just prefer to squish them without so much as a second thought.

No one knows exactly but there could be 250,000 different species of moth worldwide, so no matter where we live they inevitably share our space.

Their existence, a somewhat peculiar affair when compared to higher forms, is nevertheless an integral and important part of our natural eco system.

A moth emerges from its cocoon in leaf litter, then mates and lays eggs within the first 48 hours of life. With no more eating or drinking for the rest of its life, existence takes on a self-less and higher calling - pollinating flowers and crops, and maybe becoming a tasty snack for those further up the food chain.

Though an individual may live just a week or two - and a tiny percentage may have serious implications for some forms of agriculture - collectively they pollinate some 80 percent of the world’s flora.

Its largely nocturnal habit, however, means they are largely un-noticed by ourselves, except perhaps because of their fatal attraction to our ever-spreading arrays of artificial lights in backyards, streets and driveways.

Blinded by that same light, we all too often miss the delicate beauty of these nocturnal butterflies. Like bees, the humble moth does much to keep our world alive.


Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Premiership monopoly

We are mid-way through August and the first long weekend of the new Premier League football season is now done and dusted.

In the final game of the ‘weekend’ Man City trounced Newcastle by four goals to nil. A decent thrashing in anyone’s books for an opening game.

But the numbers are not just big on the goal scoring side - City have also been big spenders during the close season, investing a mind-boggling £87 million on just four new players.

Meanwhile, André Villas-Boas is raising the stakes and is poised to break the Tottenham Hotspur transfer record for the third time this summer with the £30 million capture of the Brazilian forward Willian. The deal would push Spurs' summer spending to almost £90 million.

So, as the season gets underway and we hurtle towards the World Cup in Brazil, there are crucial questions to be resolved, as much off the field as on it because we live in a land that is now the home of global football and where transfer fees, wages and television rights dwarf conventional accounting.

In this respect, the new kid on the Premiership block this season is telecoms giant BT, spending £736 million for TV rights over three years for the privilege of screening 38 live games against Sky's 116?

Should Murdoch have bid more than £2.3 billion? How does BT's £200 million deal with Virgin Media alter the equation? And what about the BBC's £180 million on Match of the Day, with its familiar and comforting theme tune that harks back to an altogether different footballing age.

Each major televised match through the coming months will rake in £6.6 million and the past season has seen the money rolling into Britain's top soccer teams rise by 71 percent. And what if Real Madrid pay £100 million for Gareth Bale?

Whichever way you look at the numbers they are all very (massively) big – and all this is before you even get to watch a game of football.

The question is, are we realistically likely to see an end to this madness driven by the egos of global entrepreneurs who demand success at virtually any price?

There is some vague notion about clubs having to balance their budgets due to stricter disciplines imposed by Europe’s governing authorities – but money seems to talk louder than words in the Premiership.

This manic, out-of-control inflation - where currency, wages and transfer fees leave ordinary life and common sense trailing far behind - doesn't translate to excellence on the pitch.

Witness the fact that ‘our Engerland’ are still to qualify for the next year’s World Cup - and  even after that our chances of ‘progressing’ to the quarter finals, let alone lifting the coveted trophy itself, look as inflated as salaries and egos in our bgreat game.

Southampton’s Rickie Lambert, who scored for the England national team last Wednesday on his debut and with his first touch of the ball, illustrates the point nicely. At the age of 31 he was really only there because our cupboard of home-grown talent is bare.

And you only have to look at this year's opening weekend of fixtures that marked an all-time low in terms of the number of Englishmen beginning games at the start of a season.

A survey published by the Guardian newspaper shows two-thirds of those on view in the first round of fixtures were foreign nationals, highlighting the falling number of homegrown players in the top flight.

Back in August 1992, 73 percent of players featuring in first-day first XIs held English nationality but this year that figure fell to 34 percent. Not like in Germany and Spain.

The Premiership is a rule unto itself, an out-of-control sporting juggernaut where a win-at-all-costs logic doesn’t see any need to nurture grass roots talent when you can pay outrageous sums to bag inflated stars that pass in the night.

It's a toxic brew that defies normal morality and even make the banking crisis of recent years look a little tame. Wages are set at levels that would make former Knight of the Realm Fred Goodwin weak at the knees - and long-term strategy hardly seems to stretch beyond the next transfer window.

The once beautiful game of legend, gentlemen and lingering belief has become increasingly ugly, a commercial means to some wider end.

The justice of life in the real world would argue for a time of reckoning that somehow redresses the balance and brings all to account.

But it will soon be a full half century since England last triumphed in a World Cup competition and, with the Premiership in full flight once again, it really doesn’t look as though football is coming home anytime soon. Sir Alf Ramsey might just be turning in his grave.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Cameron talks up fracking

This week the Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in a national newspaper article that local communities will become richer and we will all see reduced energy bills if the UK embraces a shale gas revolution.

There was no discussion of other issues (such as reducing our dependence on energy) and only a cursory dismissal of some of the very real concerns that fracking for shale gas might cause – irreparable damage to our countryside, pollution in the ground and atmosphere, and severe water shortages.

But different stories are beginning to emerge from the lands of eastern Europe and even America (more of which later) where the mining of shale gas has been seriously on the agenda for a while longer.

Take Poland for instance. The Prague Post – the Czech Republic’s English-language newspaper - reported back in June that the Polish government had announced plans to improve regulation and postpone tax collection on shale gas production in the hopes of encouraging investors to continue their explorations for the fuel.

A somewhat strange move if things were going so well – but then something had to be done following the unexpected withdrawal of three North American companies from explorations in the country.

Doubts over the estimated scale of Poland's shale gas reserves began surfacing more than a year ago after ExxonMobil announced plans to cease exploration in the country, citing disappointing test drilling results.

The withdrawal last month of two more multi-nationals - Talisman Energy of Canada and US oil giant Marathon - has now cast more uncertainty over the commercial viability of shale gas in Poland.

Marathon stated this summer that it had decided to end its Polish operations after ‘unsuccessful attempts to find commercial levels of hydrocarbons’.

Talisman, meanwhile, announced the sale of its Polish operations to the Irish-based San Leon Energy group, which is presumably going to tackle things in a different way - or perhaps with the ‘luck of the Irish’ where the talisman failed.

Exploration company executives had complained that complicated environmental regulations in Poland, along with a lack of legislation on shale gas, has also caused difficulties. Some foreign firms also found the legal framework for shale gas investment in the country to be less straightforward than expected.

Shale gas mania was triggered in Poland when a report by the United States Energy Information Agency estimated the country to have untapped reserves of some 5.3 trillion cubic meters - enough to meet domestic demand for 300 years.

Polish leaders – quick to jump on the fast moving shale gas gravy train (and which government wouldn’t?) soon made shale gas exploration a priority, voicing ambitions that the country could surpass its own domestic requirements and even become a gas exporter.

The country's policy-makers had high hopes that shale gas would provide Poland with a boost to its slowing economy and help reduce its high unemployment rate of around 14 percent.

The strategy was also touted as an energy diversification tool that would lower dependence on Russia's Gazprom, which currently supplies around two-thirds of Poland's gas at some of the highest prices in Europe.

While the initial excitement and unrealistic optimism over a possible shale gas bonanza is fading, some companies remain hopeful. Lower shale gas projections arrived at by the government more recently might still be enough to meet Polish domestic demand for some 70 years and Chevron continues its explorations in Poland, currently drilling a fourth well with two more planned later this year.

The government is now working on a raft of new regulations that it hopes will prevent further departures of these firms, whose expertise and prior experience in North America is thought to be vital.

New regulations will also give North American companies the same rights as EU companies in in the belief their expertise will allow Poland to replicate the recent US ‘energy revolution’ brought about by (racking (hydraulic fracturing ).

The word ‘desperation’ comes to mind and some experts believe that attracting US companies may not be the answer because their techniques may not be as transferrable as they hoped.

So far, Poland has granted more than 111 permits to at least 30 investors, many of them from the United States and Canada, to explore what its government has touted as Europe's richest shale gas deposits.

Thirty-nine wells were planned for 2013, but according to Environment Ministry data only two had been drilled by May this year. Some 300 wells are thought to be needed to determine whether Poland could realistically be self-sufficient.

Back in the UK, in a week when the big six energy companies touted likely increases in the price of energy for the autumn, David Cameron chimed in with a lightweight piece suggesting the UK public should accept fracking and claiming the controversial method of extracting gas will attract ‘real public support’ once the benefits are explained.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the Prime Minister said the process would not damage the countryside and would cause only ‘very minor change to the landscape’.

His whimsical PR pros, penned in a let’s ‘dispel the myths’ style, added no depth to the case for fracking and only served to highlight once again the UK government’s inexcusable lack of a long term energy policy and failure to manage properly some of the big issues that really matter.

In demanding that shale gas drilling take place across the country, Cameron is playing a high-stakes political game based more on wishful thinking rather than hard economic analysis.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information