The coalition's support for fracking is based on ideology, not evidence

The government's dash for gas will increase energy bills, not reduce them.

Today the temporary moratorium on fracking in Lancashire was lifted, completing a journey to redemption for the UK shale gas industry since Cuadrilla caused two small tremors in Blackpool last year. Fracking has been given a green light.

It’s the latest pro-shale move from a coalition government gone fracking crazy. The first two weeks of this month alone have seen George Osborne announce tax breaks for the shale gas industry, Boris Johnson compose a paean to fracking in his Telegraph column and David Cameron tell the House of Commons Liaison Committee that Britain must be part of a "shale gas revolution".

The enthusiasm for shale gas among many in the Conservative Party, and beyond, is partly based on the notion that it will bring down energy bills for consumers. In his Autumn Statement, Osborne justified his fracking tax break by arguing that: "we don't want British families and businesses to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic”.

Fracking indeed caused gas prices to fall in the U.S (although they’ve since rebounded somewhat). And the hope of a similar nosedive has led to the Chancellor staking the future of the UK’s energy system, and the size of our energy bills, on natural gas.

So how likely is it that we’ll enjoy a US style fracking revolution here? Not very, say experts. Analysts at Deutsche Bank, the International Energy Agency (IEA), Ofgem, the European Commission, Chatham House and others, have all concluded that the fall in gas prices seen in the U.S. will not be replicated in Europe. Deutsche Bank, for example, concluded that “those waiting for a shale gas ‘revolution’ outside the US will likely be disappointed, in terms of both price and the speed at which high-volume production can be achieved”. While the IEA have outlined how European shale gas will be 50 per cent more expensive to extract.

Yet Osborne is betting the farm, and the UK’s energy future, on fracking bringing costs down enough to make it economic to run almost half our power supply off gas. At his behest, the Department for Energy and Climate Change last week published its Gas Generation Strategy, which aims to incentivise the construction of up to 40 new gas-fired power stations. Given that the UK already relies on gas for most of its heating and much of its electricity, this move to increase our reliance on an increasingly expensive fuel represents a considerable gamble with consumers’ money. It comes as government advisers, the committee on climate change, today warned that Osborne’s ‘dash for gas’ could increase our energy bills by £600 over the coming decades. The committee cast the low carbon route, which would see bills rise by only £100 by 2020, as an insurance policy against rising gas prices.

There is also the small matter of local opposition to fracking. One Conservative MP has described opposition to windfarms as being a "walk in the park" compared to shale gas. While recent analysis by Greenpeace found that over 60 per cent of England is currently under ‘license block’ consideration for the development of shale gas. Much of this gas is hidden under the Home Counties and, as the residents of Balcombe in West Sussex have demonstrated, fracking is not welcome in these parts.

Earlier this week, leading energy expert, Professor Paul Stevens of Chatham House, went as far as to describe George Osborne’s plan for a dash for gas as "misleading and dangerous" Misleading because it is based on the mirage of lower gas prices resulting from fracking; dangerous because the dash for gas threatens to pull much needed resources away from clean energy and thus poses a significant threat to our efforts to tackle climate change.

In fact, Osborne’s plans to incentivise the construction of 40 new gas power stations are predicated on dismantling key climate laws. Last month, a Greenpeace investigation revealed Osborne’s plans to unpick the Climate Change Act. These plans took a step forward with the publication of the Gas Generation Strategy, which outlines how “gas could play a more extensive role, with higher load factors, should the 4th Carbon Budget be revised upwards.” 

Precisely why Osborne has chosen to ignore the facts in order to pursue his dash for gas is for others to speculate. But for consumers up and down the UK, not to mention our attempts to tackle the urgent threat of climate change, it would be infinitely more reassuring if our energy policy was based on evidence rather than ideology.

Demonstrators protest against hydraulic fracturing for shale gas outside parliament in London on December 1, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lawrence Carter is a climate campaigner at Greenpeace

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder