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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