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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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.