With almost a daily bombardment; with claim and counter-claim on various issues as we near the next General Election, I have done a little research into one of the most important topics – that of fracking and where this country is to find its energy in the coming decades. This has been given an added edge recently with the growing conflict between Russia and Ukraine. (The former is the world’s largest producer of crude oil; much of Europe’s gas also flows from it (often via the Ukraine) ). The following is an attempt to understand the debate, largely based on what appears to me, as three reasonable views (sources listed at the end).
Britain’s energy future, an issue fraught with complexity, is presented as a mere dual choice. Public opinion on fracking is divided 50:50, or rather, 40:40, with 20% reserving judgment. The National Trust has voiced its opposition to fracking on its own land holding. The Church of England has come out against it, saying that it presented a “choice between economic gain and a healthy environment,” reminding its parishioners of their duties as the Earth’s stewards.
A set of priorities here would be easy to establish: nobody wants to screw the environment for future generations; nobody wants the lights to go out; nobody wants to spend more and more on energy, in markets that are ever more unstable, and increasingly impossible for national governments to do anything about; nobody wants to destroy the countryside; nobody wants to cede the nation’s mineral rights to large corporations that won’t compensate the communities affected. But if we waste any more time arguing about whether or not the climate is changing, the lights really will go out.
The Conservative-led Government has recently renewed its push to promote “fracking” for shale gas, as French energy giant Total confirmed it was investing in the industry in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron announced that local authorities in England would receive 100% of the business rates collected from shale gas schemes, rather than the usual 50%. It’s the latest move by the Government to promote the exploitation of unconventional gas in the UK, which the Prime Minister claimed, could bring the UK 74,000 jobs, more than £3 billion of investment and cheaper and more secure energy. These figures have been seriously doubted.
On a visit to Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, in the area Total will be looking to develop shale gas wells, Mr Cameron defended the plans to push ahead with fracking, saying environmental concerns would be assuaged once people saw the benefits. He said: “We have the strongest environmental controls in this country. Nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. I think people can be reassured by that. I actually believe it’s when these wells go ahead, when people start to see the benefit, when people see there aren’t environmental concerns, they will see that it is quite right that this is part of our long-term economic plan.”
Environmentalists have criticised the business rates incentive as a “bribe” to reluctant, cash-strapped local authorities. They warned that it raised serious concerns over conflicts of interest if the councils benefiting from the money were the ones deciding on planning applications. Fears have also been raised over the potential for small-scale earthquakes and serious water shortages and pollution. That a drive to exploit new gas reserves will turn the focus away from efforts to develop a low-carbon economy to tackle climate change. The potential reliance on shale gas and the thought that this could be the panacea for all the UK’s energy problems is simply, an absolute pie in the sky and cloud cuckoo land.
The Conservatives have gone from attacking the Labour government for failing to de-carbonise fast enough in 2009, to being gas-crazed frack-evangelists? The question about the Tories is relatively easily answered. George Osborne has oscillated wildly on whether climate change is really happening. At the moment, it is second (read “nowhere”) to his core objective. The appeal is blinding. For one, this is easy money. Two, it plays into the classic Conservative narrative that, as long as we just stand back and let big business do it’s thing, while smart government smooth’s its way, we all get richer.
There is another flaw in this thinking, which is that if we do exploit all the shale resources we have, we will seriously overshoot our decarbonisation targets; climate objectives are being scotched to suit a party whose only objective seems to be its own re-election. However, any opposition whose fundamental principle is, “energy from anywhere, unless it’s near me” is just individualism dressed up as environmentalism is not acceptable either.
If this debate were to concentrate on carbon emissions, it would reach its critical questions pretty fast: the lowest carbon fuels are renewables. They’re not yet ready to supply all the country’s energy; those technologies need investment; the country needs a bridging fuel, which should be the cleanest we can find. And that would be gas. Questions remaining for the government would be: how best to assure and accelerate green investment (partly by not by putting all your faith, publicly, in fracking), and how to consolidate the move from coal to gas without over-committing to gas to the extent that people stop investing in wind and solar. That is the conversation we should be having. Given that the Conservatives seem mired in that climate change isn’t happening, Labour must set out and insist on the above terms.
So where is the Labour party? Ed Balls gave a speech last year, in which he pledged that a Labour government would “end the current uncertainty” around renewables, put planning for a low-carbon future at the centre of policy, not at the periphery, and give the Green Investment Bank the powers it was originally intended to have. But more often Labour’s points are like Osborne’s, rooted in political expedience. Caroline Flint, the shadow energy secretary, said last December: “Fracking should only go ahead if it is shown to be safe and environmentally sound.” This is weak to the point of being meaningless. We already know how sound it is – far less sound than a renewables.
The LibDem’s. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been urged to “come clean” about their professional connections to firms engaged in fracking by Labour MP, Ian Lavery, who serves on the Commons Environment and Climate Change committee, who said: “It’s really a concerning fact because they’re in positions to move, shape and develop policy. They need to come clean, put their cards on the table and declare an interest particularly in the issue on shale gas and its potential development in the UK, particularly when fracking is causing great concern up and down the UK.”
The LibDems’ links with the BG Group caused controversy in 2011 over an alleged “cash-for-access” scandal. As part of a £1m party fundraising programme, the Liberal Democrats were found to have offered business lobbyists £25,000 to join the exclusive ‘Leader’s Forum’, which offered dinners with Nick Clegg. The ‘Leader’s Forum’ was promoted to lobbyists at a launch event, attended by Treasury chief secretary Danny Alexander and Vince Cable alongside representatives of the Tobacco Manufacturers’ Association, the Tobacco Retailers’ Alliance and the BG Group, as reported by PR Week.
Meanwhile, Cable served as Shell’s chief economist in 1995 to 1997, which also engages in fracking. In 2012, the Huffington Post UK revealed a letter describing him as “the contact minister for Shell.” The LibDem business secretary has mounted a robust defence of the coalition’s “reasonable” decision to award tax breaks to fracking firms. The government’s pro-fracking stance provoked derision from Lavery, who claimed: “Clegg and Cable are up to their neck in energy policy but is it a case that they’ve been paid for it in a previous life and they’re delivering on what they’d say they’d deliver?” So more doubt for us voters.
The Greens. Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said that the senior LibDem’s links were a sign of the “pervasive” reach of the fracking industry. She continued, “I know there are lots of Lib Dem members and supporters who are shocked and dismayed that their party leaders are not just accepting fracking, but enthusiastically promoting it, with Energy Secretary Ed Davey recently deliberately repeating the phrase that he ‘loves it’. I’m not surprised that many people are highlighting the fact that the two most senior figures in the party have prominent links to the oil and gas industry in their employment past. The pervasive reach of the oil and gas industries (and a number of other industries, from tobacco firms to supermarkets) through our political system is a cause for grave concern. Voters have good cause to ask about whose interests are being represented.”
Kathryn McWhirter, from Balcombe, West Sussex, where protesters took direct action while energy company Cuadrilla conducted exploratory drilling at a site on the outskirts of the village last year, claimed Mr Cameron was simply giving out mis-information on fracking to the British public.
She said: “First, he said shale gas would lower prices and create vast numbers of jobs. Both claims have been shot down by his own advisers, yet he continues to repeat them. Now he wants to bribe local people and council planners – what a conflict of interest, what desperation. After two years’ sober research, we in Balcombe are all too aware of the hazards of modern fracking and our message to him is this: Our health and our environment are not for sale.”
To sum up, what we’re currently looking at from both sides, is electioneering dressed up as energy policy, with the inevitable result that an issue fraught with complexity and dilemma is presented as a simple two-way choice. On the left, you have renewables, sustainability, retrenchment; on the right, fracking, profit, growth. Fracking and windfarms are presented as polar opposites, when in fact any likely solution will involve both. The result is deadlock in public and deals in private, inevitably reducing public trust in politics more than ever. This is an issue that shows Westminster in the least flattering light.
ABOVE DISCUSSION LARGELY ABSTRACTED FROM THE FOLLOWING ARTICLES: