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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.