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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Why Chris Grayling is Jeremy Corbyn's secret weapon

The housing crisis is Labour's best asset - and Chris Grayling is making it worse. 

It feels like the classic Conservative story: wait until the election is over, then cancel spending in areas that have the temerity to vote Labour. The electrification of rail routes from Cardiff to Swansea – scrapped. So too is the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester route – and of the Midland main line.

But Crossrail 2, which runs from north to south across London and deep into the capital's outer satellites, including that of Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, will go ahead as planned.

It would be grim but effective politics if the Conservatives were pouring money into the seats they won or lost narrowly. There are 25 seats that the Conservatives can take with a swing of 1 per cent from Labour to Tory, and 30 seats that they would lose with a swing of 1 per cent from Tory to Labour.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising if the Conservatives were making spending decisions with an eye on what you might call the frontline 55. But what they’re actually doing is taking money away from north-west marginal constituencies – and lavishing cash on increasingly Labour London. In doing that, they’re actually making their electoral headache worse.

How so? As I’ve written before, the biggest problem for the Conservatives in the long term is simply that not enough people are getting on the housing ladder. That is hurting them in two ways. The first is straightforward: economically-driven voters are not turning blue when they turn 30 because they are not either on or about to mount the first rungs of the housing ladder. More than half of 30-year-olds were mortgage-payers in 1992, when John Major won an unexpected Conservative majority, while under a third were in 2017, when Theresa May unexpectedly lost hers.

But it is also hurting them because culturally-driven voters are getting on the housing ladder, but by moving out of areas where Labour’s socially-concerned core vote congregates in great numbers, and into formerly safe or at least marginal Conservative seats. That effect has reached what might be its final, and for the Conservatives, deadly form in Brighton. All three of the Brighton constituencies – Hove, Brighton Kemptown and Brighton Pavilion – were Conservative-held in 1992. Now none of them are. In Pavilion they are third, and the smallest majority they have to overcome is 9,868, in Kemptown. The same effect helped reduce Amber Rudd’s majority in Hastings, also in East Sussex, to 346.

The bad news for the Conservatives is that the constituencies of Crawley, Reading, Swindon and in the longer-term, Bracknell, all look like Brightons in the making: although only Reading East fell to Labour this time, all saw swings bigger than the national average and all are seeing increasing migration by culturally-driven left-wing voters away from safe Labour seats. All are seeing what you might call “Hackneyfication”: commuters moving from inner city seats but taking their politics with them.

Add to that forced migration from inner London to seats like Iain Duncan Smith’s in Chingford – once a Conservative fortress, now a razor-thin marginal – and even before you add in the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s person and platform, the electoral picture for the Conservatives looks bleak.

(It should go without saying that voters are driven by both economics and culture. The binary I’ve used here is simplistic but helpful to understand the growing demographic pressures on the Conservatives.)

There is actually a solution here for the Tories. It’s both to build more housing but also to rebalance the British economy, because the housing crisis in London and the south is driven by the jobs and connectivity crisis in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Or, instead, they could have a number of measures designed to make London’s economy stride still further ahead of the rest, serviced by 5 per cent mortgages and growing numbers of commuter rail services to facilitate a growing volume of consumers from London’s satellite towns, all of which only increase the electoral pressures on their party. 

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.