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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.