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
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide