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.

Getty Images.
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.