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In partnership with ERA Foundation: 'To save the environment, first we must save the economy'

Fracking has a key role to play in securing both our energy supply and the nation’s economic well-being. Q&A with Sir Alan Rudge, president, ERA Foundation.

The impact of rising domestic energy bills on the health and well-being of the British people has been extensively documented. What has received less attention is how these same price increases are reducing the nation’s industrial competitiveness.

Rising energy costs are weakening manufacturing output. This in turn is driving both the goods trade deficit and a sharp decline in our status as a global manufacturer, which has slid from fourth largest in the world to ninth over the past 15 years. The long-term viability of energy-intensive industries is at risk.

If the UK is to reverse its fortunes, urgent attention needs to be paid to reducing the cost of energy and to securing supply, says Sir Alan Rudge, President of the ERA Foundation. The foundation has repeatedly highlighted how energy production and security policies need to be overhauled drastically, a key priority being the scrapping of green taxes that were introduced as part of the Climate Change Act 2008 (or, at least, a significant reduction of these tariffs). They have added as much as 28 per cent to industry’s fuel bills, and it is anticipated that increases will escalate over the next few years.

Equally, alternative sources of energy must be secured as coal-powered power stations are closed and the ageing nuclear stock is patched together until an overdue new generation of reactors is built. Many believe the solution lies in windfarms and solar panels. However, these are expensive to build and run (they require significant subsidies), are incapable of producing a reliable baseload source of energy and will not result in rapid decarbonisation. Shale gas, on the other hand, offers a secure and competitively priced supply of energy.

Admittedly, fracking has had a great deal of bad press, including accusations that it is responsible for public health problems, polluted water supplies and significant depletion of water resources. Yet many of these aspersions have been found to be untrue or exaggerated. For instance, contamination of groundwater by fracking fluid is possible, but is very unlikely if proper procedures are followed.

The prediction is that the location of major shale gas reserves will reshape world politics and the associated flow of wealth. No longer will Middle Eastern oil or Russian gas remain tools that have determined the direction of geopolitics over the past forty years. Experts estimate that there are trillions of cubic feet of shale gas lying beneath us – if the UK can exploit this, we can secure our energy supply, improve the sustainability of industry and manufacturing, and reduce our trade deficit.

How would you describe the energy outlook for the UK today?

When looking at our energy needs, you have to start with the economy. The UK has been running a negative balance of trade since the end of the Eighties and it’s been getting worse. There is a deficit in the trade of goods of £100bn a year, the main cause of which is the shrinking of our manufacturing industry from more than 20 per cent of GDP to its current 11 per cent since the mid-Nineties. One of the main factors impacting upon the future of manufacturing industry is the high cost of energy.

In your view, what factors are driving these cost increases?

licies based on the alarmist 2008 Climate Change Act are raising the cost of energy, both to industry and to the general population. As green taxes force the prices up, more manufacturing firms – many of which are foreign-owned and therefore don’t have any special reason to be here – are looking to move out of the UK. Our economy cannot afford this to happen. The point of green taxes is to encourage businesses to operate in a more environmentally friendly way, isn’t it? Global warming alarmism was the reason for the 2008 act and it was an overreaction.

The world has not heated as predicted. The extent to which human activity is contributing to natural climate variability remains uncertain. Meanwhile, we  are not reducing emis-sions. Let’s not forget that while we are closing coal-fired power stations, or converting them to burning more expensive imported woodchips with an increased carbon footprint, China and India are busy building new coal-fired stations that will far outweigh our total contribution to carbon dioxide emissions.

Current policies don’t make sense. There is no advantage in making us poorer. Poor nations can’t save the environment. We have a huge debt due to borrowing and the banking crash, which means we are paying more than £50bn a year in interest. If manufacturing output decreases further, our financial situation will worsen. To save the environment, first we must save the economy. We need to rebalance the economy with manufacturing at its heart.

What measures do you think are needed to reduce these energy costs?

Shale gas offers a huge opportunity. In the US, it has totally transformed their energy situation. Costs have gone down by 40 per cent and they are producing sufficient gas to meet their own needs and to become an energy exporter. This will reduce their dependency on the Middle East, which must have strategic and political significance. In addition, shale gas produces half the carbon-dioxide emissions of coal, leading to a substantial reduction in the national carbon footprint.

What of the concerns that many people have about the dangers of fracking?
If you were in a sinking boat with a large hole in it and someone offered to come along and patch it up, would you turn them down just in case they didn’t make an invisible repair? That sums up the attitude of those opposed to shale gas. They would prefer to sink, it seems.

What of the risk of earthquakes, poisoned air and water, and damage to health?

The Shale Gas Shock by Matt Ridley highlights how much of what is claimed about fracking is not true. Fracking takes place at great depths, typically more than a mile down, and provided it is carried out in a properly controlled way it is less dangerous than any other source of fossil-fuel production – drilling for oil offshore can be a tricky business, for example.

How about the visual impact above ground?

Shale gas installations are about the size of a large garage, and can be disguised to blend in with the local environment. They certainly look nothing like typical industrial sites or power plants. Nor do they require as much space as renewables; one shale gas site can produce the same amount of energy as 47 wind turbines, for example, and the supply is not dependent on the weather.

How cost-effective is it in comparison to renewable fuels such as wind or tidal power?

Wind power is between two and five times more expensive than shale gas. Aside from that, there is the big problem of variability of wind, which the National Grid cannot handle. Tidal power, while it’s probably the most predictable renewable source, would require vast areas of water to be closed off to make it effective, which is not financially or environmentally viable.

Does the UK have the skills – and importantly, the access to finance – to make shale gas a success?

Because we have become a highly indebted nation, spending more than we earn, we don’t have enough wealth to do it ourselves. We will need foreign investment initially, and imported expertise until we have developed our own skills.

If the profits from shale gas will be made by foreign companies, does this mean local communities will miss out?

Where shale gas production has occurred, it has regenerated local economies by creating jobs and using local services. Shale gas has the potential to enrich communities.

What do you think will happen if the UK doesn’t embrace shale gas?

It will be pretty grim. If you look at the recent Davos meeting, there was serious concern about industrial capacity moving from Europe to the US as a result of rising energy costs. If we don’t embrace shale gas there is a very good chance that we’ll frighten away the high-energy-using industries, which will be disastrous for the UK economy.

Are we all doomed?
We’re not doomed. Our generation will get away with it. What we’re doing is passing the debt and the problems on to our children. We need to face up to the facts and take positive action. We’re sitting on several hundred years of gas supply. This is a great opportunity. We shouldn’t be wasting time arguing and whingeing – it’s time to get up and go.

 

Sir Alan Rudge is the president of the ERA Foundation.

 

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.