The reluctant archbishop

The retiring leader of the Anglican communion leaves an ambiguous legacy.

So last autumn's rumours were mainly true. Rowan Williams is to step down as Archbishop of Canterbury at the end of the year, though not it seems to take up a full-time academic job as a professor of theology. Rather, he will occupy a comfortable sinecure as Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge; a post that brings little in the way of responsibility but does afford some lovely views over the river Cam. At sixty-two, he will still be younger than many of his predecessors were when they were appointed, to say nothing of Pope Benedict XVI -- shortly to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday and old enough to be, in some bizarre parallel universe, Dr Williams' father.

Attention will no doubt soon turn to the matter of the succession. The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, is the clear favourite, which probably means that he will not get the job. There are signs of an advanced "stop Sentamu" campaign already. It's difficult to say more at this point, not least because of the opaque system of appointment by the Crown Nominations Committee, which I have criticised before. I think it's safe to say, though, that it won't be Giles Fraser.

During his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams has pulled off the rare feat of being controversial without being particularly outspoken. His most memorable interventions -- such as his notorious 2008 speech which appeared to suggest that the recognition of Sharia law in Britain was both inevitable and right -- have been couched in abstruse and often equivocal language. He has perfected the art of sitting on barbed-wire fences, seeming almost to find the resulting discomfort a source of intellectual and moral inspiration.

At best, Williams' contributions to the national debate have been insightful and even pointed. I would single out, for example, an article he wrote for the Times at the height of the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, warning of the dangers that "systematic humiliation of politicians" posed for the health of democracy and pointing out that regulation was no substitute for integrity.

But a man whose theology has always been characterised by nuance and ambiguity, who tends to see eleven sides to every question, has never looked comfortable in a public arena that prioritises confrontation. And it's notable that he has tended to be more forthright, even impassioned, in his political pronouncements (see for example the leading article he wrote as guest editor of the New Statesman last year) than when talking about purely religious matters. Perhaps he just feels more ambiguity in his own area of professional expertise, where he has thought longer and more deeply.

He leaves a Church of England, and an Anglican Communion, at least as riven on questions of sexuality and gender as when he was appointed a decade ago. This isn't his fault, although critics complain that he has tended to put unity above principle and failed to give strong leadership. The position taken by most Anglican churches in Africa, which see homosexuality as inherently sinful (at best) is in the end irreconcilable with the liberal views which predominate in North America and increasingly (though far from uniformly) in the Church of England itself. The latest scheme for papering over the cracks -- the so-called Anglican Covenant, on which Williams has staked much of his personal authority -- is in deep trouble; seventeen C of E dioceses have already rejected it.

By announcing his resignation now, rather than (as had been expected) after this summer's Jubilee celebrations, Williams will at least avoid being seen to have quit in response to a humiliating failure. But he may well still be in post when the General Synod gives its final approval for the consecration of women as bishops. This would be a proud legacy to take his leave on. Yet the instinctively Anglo-Catholic Williams will also be acutely conscious of the implications of the move for the Church of England (facing yet more splits and Romeward defections) and for wider efforts towards Christian unity. The question is another of the many circles that his immensely subtle theological mind has never quite managed to square.

He will, though, be relieved to escape the constant criticism and scrutiny to which he has been subjected in the past decade. There's nothing unusual in an Archbishop of Canterbury attracting dismissive press coverage, of course. Indeed it's a great British tradition. Both of his immediate predecessors, in their different ways, were at times figures of ridicule. And it might be said that Lord Carey's subsequent career as a moral and ecclesiastical pundit in the News of the World and more recently the Daily Mail has proved no more helpful to Dr Williams than was Lady Thatcher to John Major. I'd be very surprised if his successor, whoever he is, faced similar discomforting interventions from the Master of Magdalene.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.