Fracking is propping up the US economy

No wonder the UK wants a piece.

Rumours of America's death as the world's predominant economic power, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, it now appears that Uncle Sam's hegemony seems set to continue for the foreseeable future. The Chinese dragon, which has for years been predicted to outperform the US eagle and assume the mantle of undisputed economic superpower, seems to have slowed its fiery progress and receded into its cave somewhat. The principal reason for this geo-political shift is largely driven by the USA’s current epoch-defining energy boom, courtesy of the discovery of huge shale gas reserves and the advent of fracking technology.

Fracking, the process of blasting shale gas from rock, is already revolutionising US energy capability and providing a shot in the arm for an economy that only a few years ago was wallowing in a deep recession brought about by the subprime mortgage collapse. The USA was a net importer of gas prior to shale coming to the rescue - now, in a remarkable volte face, it is a net exporter and has the power to drive the US economy into a new era of prosperity. This is not hyperbole; this is the technological breakthrough in energy of this generation and has already started to rebalance the global economic system. With cheap liquefied gas driving brent crude prices down in the US, the economy is no longer as dependent on the OPEC countries’ output and price controls. As the US returns to being self-sufficient, fuel is becoming cheaper and consumer spending is on the rise. The US has got more than 10,000 fracking wells opening up each year and their gas prices are three-and-a-half times lower than in the UK.

Clearly fracking has come at the right time for the US, as the country was beginning to recover it then received a huge boost from shale. As the US economy recovers and returns to growth, the knock-on effect for the rest of the world will be palpable. Global oil prices should fall, particularly good news for countries such as Russia, whose economy is driven by oil production and consumption. In short, prosperity is slowly returning to the economic behemoth and will continue to grow as the shale revolution fuels the US economy. This is happening at a time when the much vaunted rise of the BRIC countries - China in particular - is beginning to slow somewhat in the face of a declining export market, poor interest rates, closed financial markets and ever growing labour and manufacturing costs causing developed countries to repatriate certain higher-end manufacturing services.

It is no wonder that countries like the UK want to take advantage of fracking technology, on the basis that if the UK only sees a small percentage of the impact that shale gas has had in the US, there should be lower energy prices in the UK and greater household wealth. The American energy boom narrative is however a singular one and something that small countries such as the UK would do well not to ape too closely. The US has huge tracts of hinterland devoted to mining for shale gas - the majority of shale in the UK will have to be extracted in and around urban areas, so there is simply not the room for a wholesale energy revolution. Also, shale gas is a finite resource, so even the US will likely only benefit from this cheap energy source for the next 20-25 years.

What is critical for the UK and other major European economies is to continue prioritising research and development into alternative renewable energy technology, an area that the UK already leads in terms of innovation. Perhaps then the UK can find its own shale revolution using renewable, clean energy technology.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.