Bill payers are being fracked over by misleading claims from Cameron

Even if shale gas does bring down bills, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. The government's narrow focus is selling the public short.

Fracking made the headlines yesterday as Caroline Lucas was among protestors apparently outnumbered by police in Balcombe. As Lucas was being dragged off to sit in the back of a police van and reflect on her part in the "mass civil disobedience", protestors elsewhere were superglueing themselves to the London offices of PR agency Bell Pottinger, representatives of energy company Cuadrilla.

The protestors have focused largely on the environmental consequences of fracking but many others will be interested in the potential for fracking to bring down their bills, as David Cameron has claimed it will. But this claim is misleading: even if shale does bring down bills, which is highly uncertain, we may need to wait 15 years for it to do so. With the right conditions in place, fracking has a place in the UK but it offers no protection to bill payers from the high and rising cost of energy.

It makes no sense to import gas we can produce at home, especially if the process creates thousands of jobs and billions of pounds in tax revenues. For this reason we should back fracking as a way to develop the UK’s vast shale gas reserves. According to a recent study, there are shale beds containing 40 trillion cubic metres of natural gas in the north of England.

Support for fracking should not, however, be accompanied by a weakening of the UK’s commitment to reduce its carbon emissions. Gas has a vital role to play for years ahead as a bridging fuel on our way to a near-zero carbon energy system and as a back-up to renewable forms of generation. As long as our legislated decarbonisation targets stay in place and are adhered to, fracking can have a part to play.

While fracking could bring benefits, it will not help households who are feeling the pinch from high energy bills, at least not any time soon. There are two main reasons for this. First, it is not clear how much it will cost to develop shale gas in the UK. The peculiarity of UK shale reserves is a key factor here. Also important is how communities respond to the prospect of fracking in their area: if developers face protests nationwide as they have in Balcombe then clearly costs could be high. Second, and crucially, the price of gas in the UK is set by the price of imports through international markets. One analysis suggests we may need to drill 10,000 wells to offset the need for imports, which, if achievable, could take 15 years.

So, what about householders, who have their seen their energy bills rise by £360 or 60% from 2004 to 2011 and face yet another round of bill increases before the year is out? The government’s preoccupation with all things shale is selling them short.

To be protected from bill increases, householders need to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The main policy that should support households in doing so, the Green Deal, is not delivering: 130,000 households were expected to sign up to the scheme this year but so far only 306 have. The government should be doing everything it can to get this scheme moving, which means introducing more incentives to simulate demand, looking at ways to reduce the cost of loans that are available and supporting area-based schemes as much as possible.

Some households, the 'fuel poor', struggle with high energy bills more than most. Locating these households is hard and to do so the government should adopt an area-based strategy, centred on local authorities. Local health bodies could also play a key role in these schemes.

Debate on the role for shale gas will not die down any time soon but the government’s argument that it will help bill payers won’t ring true for many years to come.

Protesters form a blocade outside a drill site operated by Cuadrilla on August 19, 2013 in Balcombe, West Sussex. Photograph: Getty Images.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation