Fracking for shale gas: Hancock’s half-truths

The new energy minister calls shale “the holy grail” of energy policy. He’s probably right. It’s a mythical object that no-one’s found, and over time just has increasing comedy-value.

The new energy minister calls shale “the holy grail” of energy policy. He’s probably right. It’s a mythical object that no-one’s found, and over time just has increasing comedy-value

Today, new energy minister Matthew Hancock has lined up behind the rest of the men in the coalition government to don his cheerleader outfit and start thumping the tub for fracking.

Astonishingly large swathes of the British countryside are now laid open to the drillers’ rigs, as the government’s new map today shows. It’s an obsession that’s starting to seem more than slightly unhinged.

What’s worst about this bizarre fixation with trying to force through the least popular energy source since nuclear power is that if the government were genuinely concerned about the problems fracking purports to solve, there are many other things it should do first.

Mr Hancock claims that “shale gas can reduce carbon emissions by reducing the amount of coal that we burn”.

First, the jury is still out about whether shale gas is lower carbon than coal – as Carbon Brief set out. Second, even if it was lower carbon, drilling shale gas won’t just magically replace coal. That’s like saying if I make some toast, you will automatically stop eating cornflakes. The decision about coal or gas is down to prices and regulations.

If the government wanted gas power stations to run more than coal, it would increase the carbon price. The chancellor froze it at this Budget. Or it could use regulation – but it explicitly gave a loop-hole to old coal power stations so they can avoid the new Emissions Performance Standards. And just this month it’s introduced a new subsidy worth a billion pounds to a 2 Gigawatt big coal plant, which could see old coal run for another 15 years. So it doesn’t really seem to want to do anything about coal at all.

Mr Hancock also claims “that shale gas has the opportunity to increase our energy security”.

Well, yes, if we fracked half the country, then we might make a small dent in what we import. But again, if the government were serious about energy security, then why on earth is its strategy for energy efficiency so pitifully weak?

Last week, health and poverty groups lined up to slam the government’s new proposals for tackling fuel poverty – the UK has some of the worst-insulated homes in Europe and some of the highest levels of fuel poverty. We’re wasting vast quantities of energy through leaky roof and walls every year. DECC projects that from now to 2030 the UK’s gas use will not fall at all.

And if energy security is such a problem, why is the UK among thecountries coming out against ambitious EU-wide energy efficiency targets for 2030? It makes much more sense, and is much cheaper, to cut demand rather than try to maximise supply.

Mr Hancock calls shale gas “the holy grail” of energy policy. Here he’s probably right. It’s a mythical object that no-one’s found, and over time just has increasing comedy-value. Far better to focus on what works.

The first focus of UK energy policy needs to be an aggressive focus on energy efficiency. Then decarbonising electricity, through a rapid expansion of renewables. Gas is a transition fuel through the 2020s. But shale gas is not needed to do that. Among Labour supporters, only 19 per cent want fracking, with 44 per cent opposed.

There’s no sense, or parliamentary seats, in ripping up the beautiful British countryside pursuing a futile dream.

Simon Bullock is a senior campaigner at Friends of the Earth

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30 Responses to “Fracking for shale gas: Hancock’s half-truths”

  1. Mike Stallard

    I am not surprised, but I am shocked by this article.
    Friends of the Earth is a big lobbyist in Brussels and is making a lot of money out of our taxes. The wind doesn’t blow all the time and when it doesn’t, the vast wind farms produce nothing. The sun, in Britain, doesn’t shine at night nor does it shine strongly in winter when electricity is needed more than ever. Add in a lot of very rich people making a lot more money out of our taxes through generous subsidies and – bingo! – we have just the sort of money making racket that the Labour Party ought to be deriding.
    I thought that Labour was the party of heavy industry? Or has that changed too?
    Poor people? Who do you think is paying out all the subsidies, building all the wind farms and solar panels if not the poor people who cannot afford to pay for accountants to gain tax avoidance?

  2. Cole

    And who do you think is lobbying for this fracking – and tax breaks for doing it? That would be a bunch of Tory donors and cronies.

    Labour the ‘party of heavy industry’? I don’t think there’s much of it left.

  3. Norfolk29

    Solar panels on every suitable roof would be cheaper if there was a reasonable FIT, or the level of prejudice against them was removed. Relaxing the rules on small wind turbines (up to 5Kwh), which are effective during the UK winters could take millions of houses and small factories off the National Grid within 5 years. The trouble with the Green party and FOTE is that they are against, against, against, and never for, for, for. Why not?

  4. Leon Wolfeson

    No, they really would not. They make no economic sense by the time you’ve looked at the dirty production costs, the MASSIVE costs of handling it on the grid (both in grid upgrades, and the massive amount of gas backup we’d need.

    The FIT we have is massively excessive, too.

    And given wind’s terrible safety and noise pollution record…and that they generate *negative* energy during winter storms in many cases!

    Going “off-grid” in that case would be simply pulling the plug as it’d be unaffordable.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    The problem is not popularity. (I’m pro-nuclear, it makes sense)

    It’s that it won’t lower bills, and is likely to cost the taxpayer a vast amount. As well as despoiling areas.

  6. jendurham

    I do not understand how fracking can improve energy security when most of the companies are foreign anyway. Do you know who provides your power at the moment, or even your water?
    By the way, Leon Wolfson, China produces far more energy from renewables than we do.

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes, they have a *lot* of hydroelectric, over 200GW.

    Of course, they’re also still building coal plants like crazy.

  8. Mike Stallard

    The “Green” policy is even more expensive – it does not work when the sun isn’t shining or when the wind doesn’t blow and it is all done by huge foreign firms backed up by very expensive “charities” lobbying in Brussels.
    Wind farms and solar panels are a matter of taste – I personally quite like wind farms – but nobody could argue that they do not affect the view. Black solar panels are an eyesore.

  9. Norfolk29

    You obviously live in a different world from me. I have solar panels and they create half of the electricity I use. I also have an Air Source Heat Pump and have stopped buying 1500 litres of oil a year for the cost of £400 a year in electricity. During the summer, especially the current one, i get all my hot water for less than a £1 a week. Try thinking of that scaled up to all the houses in the UK with south/southwest facing roofs.

  10. jendurham

    Actually in 2011 China had 687.1 hydroelectricity. It is top of the rankings for all renewable electricity, producing more than the whole of the EU. They are also building wind turbines like crazy, with a five year average growth of over 50% where the EU can only manage 12.5%.

  11. jendurham

    The hydroelectricity is measured in Terrawatts, by the way, not gigawatts.

  12. sarntcrip


  13. Leon Wolfeson

    ….What I said was entirely true.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    I live on Earth, this is true, and I am not rich. Unlike you, I cannot afford to take advantage of the programs which would allow me to use government subsidies – raising the bill for the poor, but lowering it for the rich.

    So, you close the NHS to pay for your project’s capital costs. Then you have energy costs such that many people disconnect, and you require building massive amounts of gas-fired power plants…

  15. Leon Wolfeson

    Do read my post, ta.

  16. Leon Wolfeson


  17. billbradbury

    Simon Bullock-Friend of the Earth! –Well he would say that wouldn’t he? Probably one who said burning wood reduces carbon emissions. Now that canard has been rumbled. We are sitting on a pile of coal and we import the lot.!! Coal fired stations could run clean as there is the technology. Tidal barrage would destroy some rare frog. Wind farms now also being rumbled as a waste of money as they don’t work with no wind. And Nuclear!! now I have really upset the Friends. As I type probably power coming from such. Luddites, Levelers, and NIMBY’s. However did we get a rail system when we had perfectly good canals?
    Look on the bright side. Just think of all the free travelling communities that will be set up throughout the country.

  18. Leon Wolfeson

    Euro what? No, the problem is that the RO elevator on prices means we don’t see the benefit of lower input prices, and it’s got special tax breaks, and the insurance costs have been offloaded onto the taxpayer, and…

    Gas has no generalised pricing like oil (Brent Crude). There are real criticisms to be made, but that’s not one of them.

  19. Norfolk29

    Poor people (on benefits) are not paying FIT as most of them are on special rates. Anyone in social accommodation can have solar panels fitted free of charge in return for the FIT payments going to the people who funded the panels. I know people in social housing with solar panels and perfectly glad to have them, supplied by the Housing Trust that built the houses. The FIT is paid by the Big 6 Energy Companies out of their revenues and cost everyone a tiny amount on their tariff.
    When I had my Green Deal Assessment to apply for the RHI the engineer was in the middle of an assessment for a Housing Association estate of over 100 houses, all with Air Source Heat Pumps and all funded by the RHI. This is another form of mutually provided benefits that are available to all if they wish to take advantage of it.

  20. Norfolk29

    I was born in a council house and left school without any qualifications so don’t come the poor mouth with me. All life is a struggle and all of us make of it what we can. I worked for 47 years from 17 until 64 and paid NI all the way.

  21. Leon Wolfeson

    Yes yes, you’re a ladder puller. And you only paid NI etc…Why should this make me think better of you? Why are you so happy to raise power bills on the poor if you remember what it’s like?

    No, you’re making excuses, no more. Rather than address the argument, you act all offended.

  22. Leon Wolfeson

    Poor people are paying for the FIT’s which rich people get for their panels, period. A *small* minority of poor are on special rates, many of which are hard to get – in fact, many poor people are on “special” rates in that they’ve been stuck with very expensive meters. Being on housing benefit gets you no special deal, either.

    Also, increasingly, poor people are stuck in rented accommodation instead of social housing, and they not only need the landlord’s permission (which they have no incentive to give, in practice), but the house needs to be able to take the panels (many are in poor repair and can’t have them) and then they need to be able to pay for it (some subsides are available, but in many cases (i.e. over a shop) they are not eligible).

    Your dismissal of FIT’s, at a time when many poorer people are struggling to earn enough to eat is plain *wrong*. “Benefits” for those with cash based on raising power bills are not “mutual”.

  23. alan.sloman

    Actually, Simon, energy efficiency does reduce bills, but the savings allow increased expenditure on other items – all of which take energy to manufacture, market and distribute. Saving energy, however it is done, only increase energy expenditure elsewhere.

    If you are fuel poor, the chances are that saving energy would be a god-send as then you’ll have the money for food. However, the poor are being hit the most as they pay the highest prices for their energy as they could be on meters and their unit cost for low consumption is very high. They don’t have the money for expensive energy reduction measures.

    Fracking could (and I emphasise *could*) reduce gas bills – and heating is the largest part of a home’s energy bill. Reductions in the price of gas will also bring about cheaper electricity from CGT power stations as well.

    It’s worth a bash, I’d say, just for the fuel-poor’s sake.

  24. Leon Wolfeson

    Could? No, it cannot under the current system of RO’s…gas prices are already low, and it’s made zero difference to bills. “Cheaper” just means higher profits for the companies involved, period.

    Having a “bash” at massive risk to the taxpayer is a bad idea.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    Ah, magical “clean” coal, which does not exist. The new German power plants are going to be ~15% cleaner than the 1970’s plants – still pollution-belching monsters, that is.

    Nuclear makes sense, new coal does not.

  26. alan.sloman

    I do think there’s a strong possibility of non-conventional gas reducing the price of gas overall, Leon, as there will be more gas available for the generators to choose from. This has certainly been the case in the US. Of course, it gives the UK a better security of supply as well, making us less reliable on disruptions to supply from overseas political events.

    I don’t believe the UK taxpayer is at risk; those risks are taken by the fracking companies themselves. The taxpayer can only benefit as he will be gaining the tax revenues from the home-grown fracked gas being sold to the generators, even if at a more marginal rate – it’s all positive income to the treasury.

  27. Leon Wolfeson

    Er, gas doesn’t work like that. There’s no pool or pricing standard like oil has (brent crude), it’s all individual contracts. The US system is also structured *nothing* like ours, and does not have the idiotic RO system we have.

    Bills have not gone down one bit even though gas pricing has tumbled.

    And you’re not paying attention…the major risks have been assumed by the Government, and the taxpayer will pay for anything which goes wrong. Moreover, the tax rates are specially low for fracking. I’m not sure why you think lower rates are more revenue…it’s just another drain which fracking will cause, as it’ll lead to rapid wind-downs of North Sea extraction in it’s favour.

  28. alan.sloman

    It seems I have a bit to learn on how gas prices are established.

    I still maintain that even at a reduced level of taxation the revenue is all extra to what we have now. We are not providing any subsidies, ROs and LECs for instance, so we can only benefit from the extra tax-take.

  29. billbradbury

    Interesting that most of the gas going into Grangemouth is from the Fracking in the USA. The switch from refining crude was one issue in that dispute a year ago. Fracking will happen eventually unless we do go fully Nuclear to which again the “usual suspects” object. At least it makes them feel important and give those with no fixed abode a chance to settle by some roadside in a like minded community.

  30. Leon Wolfeson

    Again, though, if it’s lower tax then they’ll shut down more expensive offshore production.

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