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.