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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times