UKIP is opposed to a number of things. We’re against Britain’s EU membership. We’re against wind farms. We’re against open-door immigration. We’re against HS2.
The problem is that some people — including, sadly, some UKIP members — conclude that we’re therefore against everything. That we’re a sort of generalised party of protest. So when they hear the widespread, strident and deeply misleading anti-fracking propaganda put about by green groups and Gazprom, they naturally assume we’re going to be against that, too.
Let’s pause and re-wind. We’re in favour of freedom, democracy, aspiration, growth, prosperity. We’re in favour of free markets and low taxes and limited government. We’re in favour of keeping the lights on. The reason we oppose EU membership and wind-farms and excessive immigration and HS2 is not because we’re a universal party of protest. No. It’s because we believe those things damage freedom and growth and prosperity.
But let’s face it — nothing is going to damage freedom and growth and prosperity so much as having the lights go out because we’ve run out of power. We’re so accustomed to flicking a switch and having the lights come on that we really can’t appreciate the awfulness of flicking a switch and finding that nothing happens. I’ve been to North Korea where the lights go out a lot of the time. Where power and water are intermittent. Where poor, elderly people struggle up twenty flights of stairs to their flat because the list isn’t working.
If we want to live in a modern economy, if we want to have jobs and welfare and pensions, if we want to keep warm in the winter and not see elderly people dying of cold, we need power. If we want dialysis and X-Ray machines in hospitals; if we want the internet, and television, and ATMs that spit out money; if we want cars and public transport and airlines and holidays, we need power. And power, I’m afraid, requires generating technology.
And the bad news is, there are drawbacks and downsides with just about every generating technology.
The British Industrial Revolution was built on coal (and we still get something like 30% of our generating capacity from coal). But it has huge downsides. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in the industry, and if you believe some estimates, many more have died from lung diseases caused by emissions from coal-fired power stations (that’s an argument for cleaner coal technology, not for scrapping coal). There are currently around 1200 new coal-fired power stations in the global pipeline, and coal in China is causing very severe pollution problems.
Many people in the UK are opposed to open-cast mining — at least on their doorsteps. But it remains a relatively low-cost way to mine.
Then there’s oil. I personally love cars, and have a sneaking admiration for petrol-heads like Jeremy Clarkson. But let’s remember that oil gave us the Exxon Valdez, and a great number of tanker disasters (many made worse by inept attempts to clean up afterwards). Oil gave us the very serious BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil (not nuclear) gave us the biggest ever peace-time explosion in the UK, at the Buncefield depot in Hertfordshire in 2005. Oil is vital for our economy, but it’s not without problems.
We think of hydro as safe, clean, green and cuddly, yet at least 250,000 deaths have resulted from hydro accidents. That’s not an argument against hydro — but it is an argument for treating it with respect, and managing it carefully.
Gas is relatively safe, though not without accidents. For those who care about these things, it produces only about half the CO2 of equivalent coal power. Our problem in the UK is that North Sea Gas is running down, and we are increasingly dependent on imports from volatile sources, like Russia. We are very vulnerable on costs — and even to blackmail from Gazprom. British industry is paying three times as much for gas as US industry. How are we supposed to compete?
I have written elsewhere about nuclear. The risks have been horribly exaggerated by green lobby groups. Nuclear waste disposal is simply a technical problem which has been solved (I have stood in a deep waste storage facility in Finland, under 1000 feet of granite).
I have also written extensively about renewables (wind & solar), so I won’t repeat it all here. But the energy you thought they delivered is largely offset by inefficiencies in intermittent conventional back-up, and they are prohibitively expensive. And arguably more people have died in wind farm accidents than in the nuclear industry.
So if we have an indigenous source of gas here, in this country, under our feet, it would be hugely irresponsible to ignore it. Of course no one wants a high-speed rail line, or a new airfield, or a waste incinerator, or a power station, or an open-cast mine, or a mobile phone mast (or indeed a wind farm) on their doorstep. But some of these things we do actually need.
Let’s very briefly consider the scare stories about fracking. The papers run headlines about “earthquakes”. There have been no earthquakes associated with fracking. There have been very minor tremors — comparable to the tremors associated with coal mining. There are concerns about possible impacts on aquifers. But many technologies involve drilling through aquifers — mining, oil drilling, even green, cuddly geo-thermal. There have been a very few reports of methane gas getting into the water supply, but these look like lobbyists’ stunts — and there is no proven case of such methane arising from fracking. More likely it came from the decay of biomass in fairly shallow strata. Many people are concerned about the impact on the countryside, but after a few weeks drilling, the remaining well-head is unobtrusive, and is eventually removed completely. Much less visual intrusion than wind farms.
Fracking is not new. It has been going on in the US for many decades. The USA is the most litigious society in the world. If there were serious problems, the industry would have been closed by class action law-suits long ago. In fact the US experience has been hugely positive. Jobs, growth, the promise of an industrial renaissance which will be great for America, but disastrous for European competitiveness.
Given the problems we face with the availability and the cost of electricity in the UK, we need coal, gas and nuclear, and we cannot afford to ignore our indigenous resources.