Shale gas could frack up our manufacturing

Fracking won't help our industrial base, if the Dutch disease is anything to go by.

Among the many extravagant claims made by supporters of fracking, perhaps the most absurd is that it will lead to a renaissance in British manufacturing. George Osborne picked up this theme last week when he argued that cheap energy was leading manufacturers to return to the US and he wanted to see this happen in Britain. A revival in the fortunes of our hard-pressed industrial regions would be warmly welcome, but sadly fracking will not deliver this. Even if all the major obstacles to extracting large amounts of UK shale gas could be overcome, our manufacturers are unlikely to benefit from much cheaper gas. To make matters worse, they could even suffer a big loss of competitiveness, as they did in the late 1970s when the discovery of North Sea oil pushed up the value of the pound.

The obstacles to major shale gas production in the UK are well known. To start with there are uncertainties about the geology. The estimate of UK shale gas reserves in the north of England was recently revised up substantially to 1300 trillion cubic feet and it is often suggested, based on US experience, that it might be feasible to extract 10 per cent of these reserves. Yet given that there are differences in the geology between the US and UK, no-one really knows whether it will be economically viable to extract anything like this volume of gas.

Even if the economics of extraction turned out to be viable, there are a multitude of environmental concerns and substantial political opposition. Unlike the US, where fracking can take place in the wilderness, we live in a crowded island. Developing our shale gas reserves will inevitably bring substantial local and national opposition that will make it much harder for the industry to take off in a big way.

But as many commentators have already pointed out, even if these substantial obstacles could be overcome, it may not mean cheap gas for our manufacturers. Unlike the US which has little capacity to export its newly found gas reserves, the UK is heavily integrated into the European energy market and our gas prices are set at the European level. Extra gas production from UK shale gas is unlikely to be large enough to lead to major reductions in European gas prices.

But what has been overlooked is that the discovery of a natural resource should lead to an appreciation of the exchange rate, which makes the manufacturing sector less competitive. The most celebrated example of this happened in the Netherlands after the discovery of a large gas field in 1959 which led to the term the “Dutch disease”.

There is also an example closer to home when the UK made the discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s and sterling became a "petro-currency". Interestingly, if the claims of proponents of fracking are to be believed, the scale of shale gas reserves in the UK could be of a similar magnitude to the discovery of North Sea oil. If 10 per cent of the estimated northern shale gas reserves were accessible, this would be equivalent to around 3250 million tonnes of oil which is almost exactly the same as UK offshore oil production since 1975.

And the precedents from when the UK discovered it had large offshore oil reserves in the 1970s are hardly encouraging. Despite an almost perpetual economic crisis, the real effective exchange rate of sterling rose by nearly 30 per cent in the six years after the first North Sea oil was landed in 1975. Over this period gross output of UK manufacturing fell by over 22 per cent and unemployment rose sharply.

That’s not to say that no-one benefits from exploiting natural resources. The companies extracting shale gas could take on more workers and may generate higher profits for their owners. There may also be additional tax revenues for the government if they are not squandered on excessive tax breaks to stimulate the industry in the first place. But the beneficiaries will not include UK manufacturers. Even if one ignores all the practical, political and environmental obstacles to exploiting our shale gas, the argument that it will lead to a renaissance in UK manufacturing does not stack up. It is unlikely to significantly reduce our energy prices and is more likely to push up sterling and erode the competitive position of our manufacturing firms.

"Frack off, u motherfracker". Photograph: Getty Images
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Labour must unite idealists and nativists to beat Ukip

The party has no coherent economic policy, says Labour donor John Mills. 

The heart of the dilemma faced by Labour is that, by and large, its working-class supporters think that you should look after your own first and everyone else afterwards, while its more idealistic middle-class supporters don’t share these nativist views. Add to this the fact that the Labour party nowadays is more middle class, more internationalist, more public sector-orientated, more metropolitan, more intellectual and less interested in winning elections than it has ever been before, and you can see why Ukip is a huge potential threat.

Ukip started by attracting mainly disaffected Conservative voters who thought their party was weak on the EU and who didn’t like David Cameron’s liberal approach to social issues. More recently, especially during the EU referendum, Ukip picked up a huge amount of Labour support. Of the 9.3m people who voted Labour in the 2015 general election, close to 3.5m of them voted for Leave – and half of these people say they are not going to vote Labour in future. Where are they going to go?

The crucial issue is whether Ukip, having gone through all its recent traumas, will get its act together to scoop up these footloose voters. Up to now, the glue which has held Ukip together has been hostility to the EU and distrust of the political establishment. It has lacked coherent policy. This leaves Ukip still essentially a protest operation rather than as a potentially governing party. But this could change. 

With Labour now increasingly idealistic rather than nativist, Ukip may pull together a string of policies that promise support for working-class solidarity, immigration restrictions, social conservatism and a reindustrialisation plan – very much the platform which won Donald Trump the US presidency. Such a manifesto could attract sufficiently widespread working-class support to make large numbers of Labour seats vulnerable. Ukip came second in 120 constituencies during the 2015 general election. There doesn’t have to be a very large swing for Ukip to start picking up enough seats to make the prospect of a future Labour government more and more remote.

Faced with this prospect, what can Labour do? Three key strategies suggest themselves. One is to avoid alienating potential Labour supporters by trying to persuade them that they should have voted Remain. On the contrary, the party must clearly accept the referendum result, and fight hard and constructively towards getting the best possible Brexit deal. 

Second, Ukip is weak on economic policy. It is all very well to promise reindustrialisation and better jobs, but how is Ukip going to fulfil them? Populism shades very easily into protectionism. There is a principled case for open markets to produce more prosperity - but this may only be possible if there are also changes to monetary and exchange rate policy to avoid unmanageable commercial competition. Ukip may, like the Labour party, find this a hard case to make.

Third, Labour needs to change its tone. There needs to be less talk of abstract universal values and more of concrete steps to improve people’s lives. Labour must celebrate working-class attitudes to self-help, trade unionism, mutual support, patriotism and solidarity. The party must build on the huge influx of members, not least because they are the cadres for the future, but it also must avoid alienating old supporters with many years of experience and commitment. It is up to the party leadership to create such a change.

As it stands, too many Labour people are still trying to derail Brexit. The party has no coherent economic policy and it still looks too London-centric, divorced from its working-class roots. Not a good place to be if Ukip pulls itself together. 

John Mills is a businessman and a Labour donor. He founded the group Labour Leave ahead of the EU referendum and has recently published the pamphlet "Why Trump Won"