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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.