The future of shale gas in the UK

The exponential growth in US shale gas production has been a boon for the country’s energy security over the past few years. Now the UK is looking to follow suit, with the government and big oil throwing their weight behind the dash for gas. But at what c

This morning David Cameron announced plans to give a greater share of tax revenues to those councils which support shale gas schemes. Under the proposed plans, local authorities would receive 100 per cent, as opposed to the usual 50, of business rates from shale gas projects, which could amount to up £1.7million extra per site for councils every year.

Over the weekend Total UK, one of the world’s largest oil companies, also announced that it would be investing in the UK’s shale gas industry, starting with the drilling of two exploratory wells in a project worth £30 million.

Such a vote of confidence in shale gas in this country is bound to encourage others to invest, but judging by the opposition from local communities witnessed so far, the industry still has a long way to go before it allays the fears surrounding the controversial fracking process used to extract the gas.

Ever since videos of flaming taps began appearing on YouTube in 2010, shale gas has been in the spotlight for its potential to contaminate groundwater and cause seismic disturbances. The mining industry has tried to respond to people’s fear by offering one per cent of revenues from shale projects to the local community. Responding to this morning’s announcement, the Local Government Association remained unimpressed:

Given the significant tax breaks being proposed to drive forward the development of shale gas and the impact drilling will have on local communities, these areas should not be short-changed by fracking schemes ... One percent of gross revenues distributed locally is not good enough; returns should be more in line with payments across the rest of the world and be set at 10 per cent.

This back and forth comes at a time when the UK is in need of fresh energy supplies to ward off the looming ‘energy gap’, in whatever form they might come. Without new electricity generation capacity, experts have been warning for several years that the UK is likely to suffer blackouts in the next decade as old power plants are taken offline and not replaced.

Emulating the successes of the US shale gas industry is clearly a sound means of warding off the energy gap, given the fantastic success achieved across the pond. In fact, 2012 saw 25.7 billion cubic feet of shale gas extracted per day in the US, making up a massive 39 per cent of its total natural gas production. Energy self-sufficiency, something thought impossible just a few years ago, could become a reality within the next two decades.

But you have to wonder what cost this renewed dependence of fossil fuels will have on the UK’s green commitments. David Cameron has already downsized funding for renewable energy in order to get household energy bills under control. By reducing the green levies that consumers have added to their bills, this vital source of support for the nascent renewable energy industries has been drastically cut.

To add insult to injury, several wind farm developers have recently cancelled or curtailed their plans for new offshore wind energy capacity in British waters, with RWE Npower Renwables announcing last week that its Triton Knoll project off the Lincolnshire coast will have its capacity almost halved, following news in November that it would also no longer develop the £5.4billion Atlantic Array project. This is compounded by the government’s recent decision to back several new nuclear power plants around the country, instead of investing in other green energy sources. New reactors will be built in Oldbury, Wylfa, Sizewell and Hinkley Point.

It seems that the path the government thinks best for achieving Britain’s energy security will be shale gas and nuclear, regardless of the concerns of local communities and of environmentalists.

Placards adorn the road alongside the campsite of anti-gas fracking activists next to The IGas Energy exploratorygas drilling site at Barton Moss. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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How worried are Labour MPs about losing their seats?

Despite their party's abysmal poll ratings, MPs find cause for optimism on the campaign trail. 

Labour enters the general election with subterranean expectations. A "good result", MPs say, would be to retain 180-200 of their 229 MPs. Some fear a worse result than 1935, when the party won just 154 seats. Rather than falling, the Conservatives' poll lead has risen as the prospect of electing a government concentrates minds (last night's YouGov survey, showing the Tories a mere 16 points ahead, was an exception).

Though Conservative strategists insist they could lose the election, in an attempt to incentivise turnout, their decision to target Labour MPs with majorities as high as 8,000 shows the scale of their ambitions (a Commons majority of circa 150 seats). But as well as despair, there is hope to be found in the opposition's ranks.

Though MPs lament that Jeremy Corbyn is an unavoidable drag on their support, they cite four reasons for optimism. The first is their local reputation, which allows them to differentiate themselves from the national party (some quip that the only leaflets on which Corbyn will feature are Tory ones). The second is that since few voters believe the Labour leader can become Prime Minister, there is less risk attached to voting for the party (a point some MPs make explicit) "The problem with Ed Miliband and the SNP in 2015 was that it was a plausible scenario," a shadow minister told me. "It was quite legitimate for voters to ask us the question we didn't want to answer: 'what would you do in a hung parliament?' If voters have a complaint it's usually about Jeremy but it's not the case that he looks like he can become prime minister."

The third reason is the spectre of an omnipotent Tory government. MPs appeal to voters not to give Theresa May a "free hand" and to ensure there is some semblance of an opposition remains. Finally, MPs believe there is an enduring tribal loyalty to Labour, which will assert itself as polling day approaches. Some liken such voters to sports fans, who support their team through thick and thin, regardless of whether they like the manager. Outgoing MP Michael Dugher (who I interviewed this week) was told by an elderly woman: "Don't worry, love, I will still vote Labour. I vote for you even when you're rubbish."

Ben Bradshaw, the long-serving MP for Exter, who has a majority of 7,183, told me: "We're not anything for granted of course. On the current national polling, the Tories would take Exeter. But having covered five polling districts, although the leadership is undoubtedly a big issue on the doorstep, most people say they'll still vote for me as their local MP and we're not detecting any significant shift away from 2015. Which is slightly puzzling given the chasm in the opinion polls." Bradshaw also promotes himself as "the only non-Tory MP in the south-west outside Bristol": a leaflet shows a blue-splattered map with a lone red dot. The Labour MP warns voters not to be left in a "one-party state". 

As in 2010, Labour may yet retain more seats than its vote share suggests (aided by unchanged boundaries). But the fate of the Liberal Democrats in 2015 - when the party was reduced from 56 MPs to eight - shows that local reputations are worth less than many suppose. Theresa May has succeeded in framing herself as a figure above party interests, who needs a "strong hand" in the Brexit negotiations. At the very moment when a vigorous opposition is needed most, Labour has rarely been weaker. And when the public turn resolutely against a party, even the best men and women are not spared.  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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