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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.