The recent report from the British Geological Survey at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire on the extent of shale gas potential in the UK suggests that the Bowland Shale formation in the Northwest could be as big as the enormous Marcellus field in the USA. On these figures, and taking account of other potential UK gas fields, it is quite possible that we have more shale gas resources than any other country in the world.
I have said before that the UK’s shale gas is equivalent to the North Sea Oil all over again. On these estimates, it could be even bigger. So much for the “peak fossil fuels” theory. We seem to have gas not just for decades, but probably for centuries. The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones: it ended when we developed better technologies. We can say the same of fossil fuels. They will end not because they run out, but because we develop better technologies (nuclear fusion springs to mind).
The difference shale gas will make to the UK economy will be vast. Make no mistake: Britain is in a deep financial hole. Osborne’s plan to reduce the deficit (that’s the annual overspend, not the National Debt) seems to be stalling. It’s stuck at around £120 billion a year. When interest rates go up — as they surely will — we could find ourselves effectively bust, in a debt spiral, and going cap-in-hand to the IMF, as we did under Denis Healey. But gas on the BGS scale could be our ace-in-the-hole. Our get-out-of-jail-card. It’s that important.
I’ve had people on Twitter saying “Yes, but unlike the Americans, we’ll sell it abroad at global prices, so we won’t see the benefit”; or even “Probably the French will benefit from it” — presumably an irrelevant folk-memory of French involvement in our water utilities and nuclear plans.
So let’s say it loud and clear: if we sell it abroad, or if we use it at home, the benefits for our country will be immense. Qatar and Saudi Arabia sell oil and gas abroad, and it’s made them rich. It will be a massive boost to UK GDP, to our balance of payments, and to the Treasury. This means jobs and growth and prosperity. And when Ofgem is telling us the lights may go out, shale gas will ensure they stay on. This almost certainly means lower energy costs, fewer pensioners in fuel poverty, fewer investors driven abroad by high energy prices, lower unemployment, jobs for our young people.
Let me say here that I sympathise with those groups of protesters who object to fracking on their doorstep — not least because I’ve been campaigning for years against wind turbines. But I think the anti-fracking groups have been misled. There are essentially two interest groups spreading misinformation on fracking. First, “green” groups, who hate capitalism and industry and prosperity, and who need good scare stories to generate donations and income. And then, foreign gas producers, who’d rather we bought expensive Russian gas than used indigenous British gas.
So let’s be clear on safety: fracking has been used for decades in the US, and in Germany, without serious problems. Fracking is much safer, say, than coal mining. In my East Midlands region we had coal mining in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and there was great regret when the mines closed. We now have a new energy extraction technology which can generate new jobs in these areas, but much more cleanly and safely, and without condemning miners to years underground, and to debilitating lung diseases.
Fracking may cause minor earth tremors — but so did coal mining, and so does hydro. The Greens complain that fracking involves drilling down through aquifers and injecting liquid under pressure — but so does geo-thermal, which they advocate. The Greens claim to be concerned about CO2 emissions, yet they ignore the fact that shale gas in the US has led to big emissions reductions, as gas displaces coal. If they followed their own logic, they would be demanding gas and nuclear. But they’re not big on logic.
In the energy debate, gas is mostly regarded as a fuel for energy generation, so it may come as a surprise to find that more gas is used in the UK directly for heating, industrial processes and cooking than for electricity generation. Moreover gas is an essential feedstock for our chemicals industry — currently under threat from high energy costs. Ethane goes into polyethylene, and into just about everything made of plastic. I understand that Ineos www.ineos.com, one of our largest chemical companies, is importing ethane from the US. They (and we) will be better off with local supplies.
So I say to the protesters, with great respect, please think about it again. Think of the very low risks. Think of the very limited local impact and visual intrusion (the drilling kit is in place for only a few weeks, and the well-head is no more intrusive than a garden shed). Think of the dramatic benefits to our economy. Think of our energy security in an uncertain world. Consider how the government is going to fund your pensions. Think of your grandchildren and their job prospects. Then talk to developers about positive ways to minimise local impacts and to ensure benefits for local residents, rather than opposing schemes outright. Your country desperately needs the gas, and the energy, and all the economic benefits it will bring.
Britain is like a small businessman who has just gone bust for £100,000 — and then wins a million in the Lottery. This is the biggest and best economic news for Britain for decades. So as Maggie once said, “Rejoice. Rejoice. Rejoice”.