I get a bit worried when I find myself agreeing with Cameron, Osborne and Davey (Ed Davey, that is, the Lib-Dem “Energy Secretary”). It doesn’t happen very often. But it they seem to be right on shale gas.
The Tory Party, like other parties, has been somewhat taken aback by the concerns, indeed outright opposition of Middle England, as represented by the good people of Balcombe in Sussex, to a rather small scale drilling project adjacent to their village. Taken aback, too, by the way that the “usual suspects” of opposition to almost any infrastructure development, the Swampies of this world, have descended on Balcombe, and have been welcomed (albeit with some understandable trepidation) by local residents. This is doubly bizarre, since the particular well in Balcombe is for conventional oil, not fracking, and is no different from a number of similar wells that are operating in the county without problems.
Osborne has seen the importance of shale gas, and is keenly aware of the huge economic benefits it offers — benefits which our economy, in its present parlous state, desperately needs. He also sees the future tax revenues. Cameron probably has the same awareness, though he gives the impression of bobbing along in his Chancellor’s wake, rather than leading the charge. Eco-obsessive Ed Davey is probably choking on his coffee at having to talk up a fossil fuel, but he is so far managing nonetheless to toe the coalition line.
Now we see reports that formal representations are being made to Cameron by the Tories’ “grassroots activists” (a declining breed), pointing out that the concerns are real, that they could have an electoral impact, and that the Party needs to make the case for fracking. To be fair to Cameron, he has discussed the economic benefits of fracking a number of times, but he needs to get a real and decisive grip on the safety aspect, to reassure local residents.
At the risk of repetition — I recognise that I write a lot about fracking, but that reflects the importance of it — let me just summarise. The film Gasland is a blatant piece of propaganda, from people who hate fossil fuels at any price. It is simply not true that fracking causes flammable gas in the water system. It is not true that there has been significant water contamination. They’ve been fracking for decades in one of the most litigious countries on earth, the USA. If it were dangerous, there would have been class actions by now. Fracking could be compared with coal mining. It is much safer.
Then there are the local issues — industrialisation of the countryside, unsightly sites, lorry traffic and so on. Of course any mineral extraction technology involves some disruption, but really with shale gas it is relatively minor. A wind turbine (they say) will stand for 25 years. A drilling rig will be there a couple of months, replaced by a well-head unit little bigger than a garden shed.
Cameron has run into this question too. He reportedly suggested that “There’s no room for (on-shore) wind farms, but plenty for fracking” . Of course the Tories have form in announcing curbs for on-shore wind-farms, then failing to deliver them — while their coalition partners actually propose that developers should be able to sue local councils who refuse planning applications. Scandalous.
There was recently a discussion of the possibility of “undergrounding” high-tension power lines in sensitive landscapes. I helpfully suggested that wind turbines would be more acceptable if they too could be undergrounded. Maybe this is what Cameron had in mind — putting our energy activity two thousand feet down, where we can’t see it, rather than four hundred feet up.
A related question I occasionally get is: “If you’re against wind farms, why aren’t you against shale gas?”. It’s one of those questions I welcome because I’m glad to answer it. Wind farms are a non-solution to a non problem. They don’t deliver even in their own terms. They are gesture politics, pure and simple. They are a huge and wasteful cost on the tax-payer and the electricity consumer, and a threat to the British economy. Shale gas, on the other hand, provided it can be recovered as we expect (and only test drilling will confirm it), offers dramatic benefits to the whole economy and to every citizen, not just to energy companies. Lower costs, security of supply, increased GDP, a transformed balance of payments, Treasury revenues, economic recovery, growth, prosperity, jobs.
With all the publicity on Balcombe, it is perhaps surprising to see a study from NottinghamUniversity which shows public opinion shifting steadily in favour of fracking. It seems that the message on the economic benefits is slowly percolating into the public mind. Thank heaven for the underlying good sense of the British people. But with commercial organisations lining up to fund anti-fracking campaigns (remind me to buy nothing from the Coop or Lush Cosmetics, please), it is not enough to stand back and hope it’s alright on the night. The Prime Minister is supposed to be a leader, so let’s see you leading on this issue, Dave. But you’ve squandered so much credibility on HS2 and wind farms, you might struggle.