Judging by yesterday's announcements, the government believes the hype about shale gas. Like a love-struck teenager it seems blind to any downsides and is lavishing its beloved with gifts such as tax breaks and streamlined regulation.
Judging by yesterday’s announcements, the government believes the hype about shale gas. Like a love-struck teenager it seems blind to any downsides and is lavishing its beloved with gifts such as tax breaks and streamlined regulation.
But there are plenty of downsides which mean that shale gas is not the answer to our energy problems.
First and foremost, shale gas is more fossil fuel. We already have four times more fossil fuels globally than we can afford to burn if we want to avoid dangerous climate change, so drilling for more, however much there is under north west England and elsewhere, is not the answer.
Secondly, the cost. The government will soon consult on tax breaks for shale gas. If the UK outlook is as promising as the industry says, why does it need tax breaks?
Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that shale gas will cut energy prices, or help hard-pressed households afford their energy bills, despite George Osborne’s assertions.
Most experts think that costs will be much higher in the UK than in the US, prompting one leading analyst, Bloomberg New Energy Finance, to describe going for shale gas on the basis that it will lower energy bills as “wishful thinking”.
Thirdly, fracking is a novel and risky technology. The industry and its advocates will tell you that it is safe and there’s no evidence of problems. The government says regulation will be much tougher here than in the US.
However that’s what they said in Australia, but they have plenty of evidence of water contamination and air pollution from unconventional gas. The Australian experience shows that you can’t regulate the unconventional gas industry into safety. You can make it safer, but you can’t make it safe.
That view is shared by the United Nations Environment Program which said last year that fracking could lead to unavoidable environmental impacts, even if it was done properly.
Maybe we would have more faith in regulators like the Environment Agency (EA) if we hadn’t caught it asleep on the job last week.
It had decided that drilling company Cuadrilla didn’t need any environmental permits for its test drilling for shale oil in Sussex. But when Friends of the Earth challenged the EA, it changed its mind. Yesterday it announced a ‘streamlined’ regulatory process for shale gas. What assurances do we have that this will be robust?
The new estimates of gas under Northern England could well be the starting gun for a shale gas rush. But that could lead to big political fallout for the government. ConservativeHome recently wrote that fracking “will have political consequences – bigger than windfarms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development”.
This fallout is likely to happen in the Home Counties as much as in Northern England.
Yesterday’s announcement focused on the Bowland Shale, but maybe the second most geologically promising area for shale gas in the UK is under the Weald in south east England running from Kent through Sussex and Surrey to Hampshire.
Cuadrilla’s proposals to drill for shale oil in Balcombe in Sussex show that local communities will fight fracking just as hard in the South.
Is Labour setting an alternative agenda on fracking? Sadly not. It supports decarbonising our power sector by 2030 but going for shale gas would put this at risk and threaten green jobs. Labour says six conditions need to be met before shale gas extraction should go ahead – but they don’t mention climate change.
Britain needs an energy revolution. But we need an energy revolution for the 21stcentury, based on energy efficiency and clean energy sources such as wind, solar and wave power.
The UK is fortunate to have among the best renewables resources in the world. The priority must be to exploit these resources, not send us down the high-carbon dead-end street of more fossil fuels.
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