If fracking is just oil which needs tax breaks to compete, what's the point?

If George Osborne likes expensive energy, at least renewables are carbon neutral.

George Osborne has announced that the fracking industry is to be taxed at significantly lower levels than the rest of Britain's extractive industries. The Guardian's Terry Macalister and Fiona Harvey report:

The Treasury has set a 30% tax rate for onshore shale gas production. That compares with a top rate of 62% on new North Sea oil operations and up to 81% for older offshore fields.

The oil industry has high levels of taxation because natural resources are considered collective property: the state owns all oil, gas, coal, gold and silver in the UK. That means that the oil companies ought to make a profit on the extraction of the oil, but not on the ownership of it. In practice, the distinction is long forgotten, but the high tax rates (and requirement for a license before exploitation begins) keeps the spirit alive.

The discount on shale gas production – or "fracking", as it's more commonly known – is to make what might otherwise be an uneconomical method of extraction slightly more business friendly. As such, the question which needs to be asked is whether we actually want this extraction to be business friendly or not. If, as seems likely, we already know about more conventional oil and gas than we could actually burn, then the business case for fracking is irrelevant: we should not extract those fuels, because we should not burn them.

Obviously, George Osborne, several years on from "vote blue, go green", doesn't particularly care about climate change, so that argument isn't going to hold. But there's a curious disconnect between the rhetoric around fracking, even from its supporters, and the practice here.

Fracking was supposed to be the end of peak-oil fears. Rather than running out of easily extractable oil, and being forced to switch to renewables, we can instead make the most of the rising oil price to use more expensive methods of extraction. That puts off the switch just a bit further into the future, and lets another generation of politicos bury their heads in the sand. (Alright, supporters of fracking don't include that last bit)

But if fracking needs financial support to be competitive with conventional oil then it's not really anything other than a more expensive way to dig up fossil fuels. And if we want more expensive forms of energy, we already have some which are carbon neutral and can't run out. Why would we want fracking against them?

Yoko Ono poses with an installation of hers. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.