Enough is enough: this dash for gas has gone too far

Osborne's dogmatism will keep Britain hooked on expensive foreign imports and do nothing to tackle high fuel bills.

"Enough is enough", energy minister John Hayes proclaimed last week as he propelled himself into the headlines and a full-blown war of words over the future of British wind power. But unhelpful as his intervention was, his very public tussle with the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, was a mere sideshow compared to murky dealings over energy policy going on behind closed doors in Whitehall, with the ministerial "quad" – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – expected to meet again soon.

This anti-wind rhetoric obscures another government agenda: a new dash for gas that will keep Britain hooked on expensive foreign imports and do nothing to tackle high fuel bills. This week, Friends of the Earth revealed that the coalition is preparing to write a blank cheque for the gas industry to build new gas plants. Outrageously, it’s exempting back-up gas power stations from the Levy Control Framework, a set of Treasury rules which restrict public spending on energy. The result is likely to be a huge rash of investment in gas, funded by taxpayers, which could see more gas power stations being built than are needed.

Friends of the Earth accepts that we need some gas as a back up while the UK makes the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and this includes a small amount of unabated gas – without Carbon Capture and Storage – to be maintained as back-up capacity. But pledging unlimited sums of public cash for this end is madness. In effect, you and I could end up paying for gas power plants that, if run at full whack, risk busting our targets to tackle climate change. In fact, we could end up paying for them not to run at all, when the penny finally drops that too many have been consented, and all we’re left with is stranded assets.

So why are they doing it? The Treasury has pressed hard for these gas power stations to be exempt from the rules, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) appears to have conceded without a fight. Nervous ministers may be listening to scare-mongering about renewable energy making the lights go out. But I suspect it has a lot more to do with the Chancellor, hell-bent on moving the government away from its green commitments at any cost to the economy, against the wishes of senior politicians and business including the CBI.

Let’s not forget the long string of free lunches that Osborne has handed to the gas industry over the past year. First came the announcement from the Energy Secretary in March that made green groups despair: "we can’t take our foot off the gas for some time yet". Davey was allowing new gas plants to pump out carbon at 450gCO2/kWh until 2045, which, given most modern gas plants emit just under 400g, was effectively a free permit to pollute for the next three decades.

I strongly suspect the decision was made by a novice minister under pressure from Osborne, without enough briefing from civil servants. It was accompanied by a pledge to develop a Gas Strategy, the rationale for which officials have privately conceded to be ‘because the gas industry felt left out’.

Then, in July, came news of a leaked letter to from the Chancellor to Davey, demanding the government issue "a statement which gives a clear, strong signal that we regard unabated gas as able to play a core part of our electricity generation to at least 2030". Cue a dutifully trotted out press release from DECC, the wording of which appeared to be practically lifted from Osborne’s letter. A few days later, the Chancellor’s father-in-law Lord Howell was exposed as an influential oil and gas lobbyist. The pieces of the jigsaw were slowly falling into place.

September saw more tax breaks for North Sea oil and gas, and an announcement that Osborne would consult over a new tax regime for shale. Then came Davey’s assurances to the gas industry in October that he expects 20GW of new gas to be built between now and 2030 – completely at odds with the Committee on Climate Change, which sees just 6.5GW of new gas by the same date.

It’s not hard to see who’s pulling the Energy Secretary’s strings. Taken together, these concessions add up to a covert strategy of support for gas by a Chancellor who appears in hock to the fossil fuel industry, whose economic calculations are frighteningly short-termist, and who sees green policies as a burden instead of an opportunity for growth.

The Treasury is lobbying hard to restrict future investment in clean energy through the upcoming Energy Bill, expected in Parliament this month. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the way we source our power for the next 20 years – and our booming green economy is at stake, which now accounts for almost a million jobs.

Enough is enough. It’s time for Cameron to stop the dash for gas in its tracks and urgently lay down a clear pathway for clean British energy.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth

Chancellor George Osborne is pushing for the government to restrict future investment in clean energy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.