The UK is trying to replicate the US gas boom. It will fail

Tax incentives won’t help.

Chancellor George Osborne’s announcement last week that the UK will offer what he is calling the world's "most generous" tax relief regime, of 30 per cent, down from a typical 62 per cent, to hydraulic fracturing companies, has sent a clear signal that it’s not a case of if we should frack in the UK, but when.  

In the US the hydraulic fracturing revolution has seen gas prices tumble from around $14 per million BTU in 2008 to around $3 in December 2012 ( a fall of around 90 per cent) and according to the International Energy Agency, the US could be independent in oil and gas by 2035.

This is something Osborne says he wants to replicate; however, his enthusiasm may be premature.

The British Geological Survey estimates there may be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas present in the north of England– but it is important to remember this is as yet unproven and we don’t know how much of it is actually accessible.  As yet, companies have only "fracked", as it is commonly known, a few wells; a process which involves removing natural gas trapped in shale formation deep underground by mixing gallons of water with a cocktail of chemicals and injecting them into the earth.

With a 50 per cent tax break Osborne seeks "to create the right conditions for industry to explore and unlock that potential [of shale gas]," as he says. However, though a bonus for shale gas companies if they do succeed in extracting gas, it isn’t going to make production come any quicker or current conditions for the industry any better.

Companies have already said it is not taxation that is putting them off investment but planning permissions and public resistance.

This is because unlike the US, which is a vast sprawling country, the UK is relatively small and compact meaning fracking will inevitably take place much closer to communities, resulting in a high possibility of public opposition. The strong aversion to wind farms in the UK’s countryside gives you a clue as to the opposition fracking companies are likely to encounter. In 2012 approvals for onshore wind farms were down to 35 per cent – in the same year a Guardian poll said opposition had tripled – from 70 per cent in 2008.

Fracking wells won’t only be an eyesore for communities but there are other issues, such as a small risk of earth quake tremors, water contamination and methane leaks – in Pennsylvania, USA, residents complained of finding methane in their water, along with up to 27 other chemicals.

The government has said fracking will boost local communities with jobs and that they will give them £100,000 per well and up to 1 per cent of all revenues from production, but will this be enough to temper possible widespread resistance?

In the US, farmers, in often economically repressed areas, can directly lease their land to fracking companies agreeing a fee and often a royalty payment on top, meaning they have much more of an incentive to accept fracking.

If the government is hell bent on Fracking, engaging with communities and getting them onside with rock solid incentives and reassurance of strict regulation is likely to speed things along and be more beneficial for everyone in the longer run than slapping a tax break on profit not yet earned.

Also, as the UK’s shale gas reserves are as yet unproven, offering a deal similar to what Norway offers to oil and gas exploration companies – a promise of a 78 per cent refund of cost if a company drills a dry well – might show more confidence and incentive to fracking companies, if the government is so sure the UK can replicate the US’s success. But as it stands fracking is still a long way from fruition, and, if it ever does get off the ground, it is still uncertain it will match the shale gas boom the US have seen.

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Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage