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.

Follow Heidi Vella on Google+

Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for Nridigital.com

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.