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.