Fracking gets the green light from the coalition

Energy Secretary Ed Davey says drilling for shale gas can resume subject to controls "to mitigate the risks of seismic activity".

Energy Secretary Ed Davey has just given the go-ahead for fracking, the technique used to extract shale gas, to resume in the UK, subject to controls "to mitigate the risks of seismic activity". Exploration was previously halted after test-drilling by the company Cuadrilla caused two minor earthquakes in Lancashire.

Davey said: "Shale gas represents a promising new potential energy resource for the UK. It could contribute significantly to our energy security, reducing our reliance on imported gas, as we move to a low-carbon economy. My decision is based on the evidence. It comes after detailed study of the latest scientific research available and advice from leading experts in the field."

However, he cautioned that "We are still in the very early stages of shale gas exploration in the UK and it is likely to develop slowly. It is essential that its development should not come at the expense of local communities or the environment. Fracking must be safe and the public must be confident that it is safe."

New controls to limit seismic risk include:

  • A prior review before fracking begins must be carried out to assess seismic risk and the existence of faults;
  • A fracking plan must be submitted to DECC showing how seismic risks will be addressed;
  • Seismic monitoring must be carried out before, during and after fracking;
  •  A new traffic light system to categorise seismic activity and direct appropriate responses. A trigger mechanism will stop fracking operations in certain conditions.

In addition, Davey announced that he was commissioning a study of the possible effects of shale gas development on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, although green campaigners are questioning why this was not held before the latest annoucement.

Greenpeace's energy campaigner Leila Deen said: "George Osborne's dream of building Dallas in Lancashire is dangerous fantasy. He is not JR Ewing and this is not the US. Energy analysts agree the UK cannot replicate the American experience of fracking, and that shale gas will do little or nothing to lower bills. Pinning the UK's energy hopes on an unsubstantiated, polluting fuel is a massive gamble and consumers and the climate will end up paying the price."

It became clear that ministers were preparing to give fracking the green light after George Osborne's Autumn Statement promised tax incentives for shale gas industry and announced the establishment of the "Office for Unconventional Gas".

Labour has said that fracking should only go ahead "if it is shown to be safe and environmentally sound" and that it will "look carefully" at the government's proposals. Shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint added: "The idea that this form of gas extraction can have the same impact here in the UK as it has had on gas prices in the United States is considered wishful thinking by most experts."

We'll have more response to the announcement later on The Staggers.

General views of the Cuadrilla shale fracking facility in Preston, Lancashire. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt