The champions and the opponents of fracking are both wrong on energy

Just as it is irresponsible to suggest shale gas is a silver bullet, so it is unrealistic to suggest that renewable energy can deliver all of our energy needs.

Two things have characterised the debate around fracking in the UK: hyperbolic claims with little grounding in the evidence and poor quality jokes. Today, as the government sets out the shale gas roadmap, expect both the hysteria and the slack humour to resurface.

The jokes are perhaps the least controversial aspect of fracking: proponents from both sides of the argument can agree that Ed Davey’s limp "I’ve been fracking responsible" and his minister Michael Fallon’s "fracking will make your walls shake" are simply embarrassing.

But these moments aside, shale gas extraction is an issue which has been dangerously starved of evidence-led debate. On the one hand, we have the enthusiasts of the right who see shale gas as a silver bullet for all of our energy problems. They argue, without any basis in fact, that shale gas is cheap, clean and imminent. They are wrong on every count.

In his Autumn Statement, the Chancellor once again claimed that shale gas extraction will lead to "lower energy bills", a myth so thoroughly debunked that for about six months the Tories were too embarrassed to wheel it out. Those projections for the cost of extraction in the UK extrapolate directly from the US experience in a way that is completely misleading and fails to take account of the geological, regulatory and market differences. They also ignore the fact that, unlike America, the UK’s gas system is integrated into a European market many times larger than itself, meaning that the cost-reducing benefits of excess supply are quickly dissipated across the continent.

Nevertheless, the Tories have continued to peddle fracking as the single answer to our complex energy supply problems. Ministers have implied that the fracking revolution will be immediate, when instead it will take years before any substantial infrastructure is in place. Writing in the Sun, Boris Johnson even claimed that shale gas was "clean". David Cameron, who has claimed that fracking would create a fantasy "74,000 jobs", has gone quiet on the subject since an independent report cut that figure down by two-thirds.

Against this backdrop of Tory hyperbole, it is not surprising that legitimate doubts about the environmental impact of fracking have been escalated by those with a more fundamental objection to the use of any fossil fuels whatsoever.

Anti-gas campaigners refer to earthquakes and water contamination, drawing on early experiences in the US to suggest that a wrecked landscape is the inevitable consequence of fracking. Yesterday, Greenpeace published a report on fracking linking fracking and the destruction of the local environment. In reality, many of these concerns come down to the question of regulation. Most of the case studies cited are from the US, where initial regulation was dangerously inadequate.

Just as it is irresponsible to suggest shale gas is the answer in isolation, so it is unrealistic to suggest that renewable energy can deliver all of our energy needs in the medium term. The UK will still need significant amounts of gas – both for peaking electricity capacity in the medium term, and to account for the 80% of our heating that currently relies on the fuel.

For this reason, the necessary examination of the potential dangers of fracking must be followed by an evidence-led discussion about how we mitigate those effects. Taking an absolutist position on shale gas, at either extreme, is a good way to get lurid headlines. It does little to encourage a rational and sensible discussion of the place of gas, and the source of that gas, in our wider energy mix.

Labour is clear that we will need to have a balanced energy mix for the future – that mix should be as low carbon as possible without endangering our energy security. It should prioritise the development of predictable renewable technologies and carbon capture and storage. It should be designed with the aim of maximising the amount of growth and jobs we can secure for the UK to help rebalance the economy geographically as well as by sector.

There remain questions to answer about shale gas in the UK, but they are best answered on the basis of evidence derived from carefully regulated and comprehensively monitored exploration. Extraction should only take place with the highest possible level of regulation and on the basis of using an indigenous supply of gas to complement the move to the sustainable, low carbon energy mix that those who are serious about energy know is an imperative for our collective future. Energy policy requires responsible leadership, not simplistic posturing.

The drilling rig of Cuadrilla Resources explores the Bowland shale for gas, four miles from Blackpool. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tom Greatrex is shadow energy minister and Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.