The first approved shale gas extraction is imminent at Preston New Road despite the damage it will do to the climate and the local area.
If you’re a Minister that’s feeling a little ashamed about the decision you’ve just made, please don’t worry. Throw your resignation letter in the bin. There’s now a simple playbook you can follow.
First, announce it on the last day before parliament goes into recess, so there’s no time for your colleagues to protest. And then, once MPs are away for their summer holidays, quietly release the expert report - the advice you are now blatantly ignoring - warning of the harm that your decision will cause.
Energy minister Claire Perry has perfected the technique. As parliament broke up for the summer, she gave Cuadrilla the go-ahead to frack at the Preston New Road site in Lancashire. It was the first approval for shale gas extraction that she hopes will expand fossil fuel production in the UK.
Three days later, the government published a report by their Air Quality Expert Group. The report had been buried since 2015. It shows that fracking will increase air pollution, and push us further away from the legal limits that the government has now breached for the past 8 years in a row. Worryingly, the report emphasised that air pollution in the areas nearby to wells would be “substantially higher”. With house prices set to plummet and their community soon to be blighted by a loud and ugly gas rig, breathing noxious air every day is just the latest slap in the face to anyone living close to the potential fracking site. No wonder the locals of Preston New Road are so irate.
I went to visit them last week. I wanted to hear first-hand from them about the site’s impact on their lives. The sense of desperation was palpable. They think the government is not listening. And who can blame them when after they had made their argument and got Lancashire County Council to refuse planning consent, the government simply overturned the decision and allowed the fracking to proceed. The government used to conduct regular public surveys, but last month after the survey showed that only 18 per cent were actually in favour of fracking they decided to stop even asking people.
I also visited the potential drilling site at Altcar Moss, where Aurora Energy have an interest. Aware of my visit, the company sent me a letter setting out their case for fracking. I appreciated their courtesy. I did not appreciate their arguments.
They stated that fracking is necessary to avoid increasing reliance on imported gas. They are correct to say that we will source a greater proportion of our gas from abroad in the future. They are wrong to imply that shale will prevent this from happening. To replace even 50 per cent of our current imports, we’d need a staggering 6,000 shale gas wells across the country. The government reckons by 2025 there could be just 155 wells in operation. That’s equivalent to just 1 per cent of our gas imports.
Their use of statistics was also questionable: implying that a rise from 50 per cent to 75 per cent of gas coming from imports by 2030 entails importing more gas. But according to the National Grid’s latest scenarios for how we curb global warming at two degrees , we could meet our climate targets while reducing the total gas we import – all without shale gas. Better insulated homes and cheap renewables mean that we will not need to burn as much gas in the first place. By 2030 our total gas use could be about 60 per cent of today, so the higher percentage of imports is actually a lower quantity of gas. Aurora insist that the UK is dependent on gas to heat 84 per cent of our homes. But that’s not the future. The National Grid believes that by 2050, 6 out of 10 of homes could well be using heat pumps. That has to be a good thing, because to avoid dangerous climate change, half our known gas reserves need to be kept in the ground.
Aurora even claimed that shale gas would offer a lower carbon footprint than imported gas. In fact the government’s official climate change advisers have stated that even if tightly regulated the overall emissions footprint of UK shale gas, “is likely to be broadly similar to that of imported gas”.
Maybe Aurora hoped their letter would make me change my mind. It did not. Perhaps my rebuttals will make them change the arguments in their letter. I suspect not. But I do want to be fair to companies like Aurora. That is why I set out at the Labour Party Conference in 2016 that a future Labour government will ban fracking. It is important that they know that in advance, because they will have to justify the investment decisions they take now to their shareholders. Those shareholders will want to know why their company has stranded assets that are providing no return on capital and I want to be sure that the board of directors understands clearly the risks they are taking with shareholders’ money.
The reason the government should join us in banning fracking is not only because of the huge strength of environmental concern expressed by communities like West Lancashire. It is also because we need to create the skilled jobs and economic growth that will come from being at the forefront of the low-carbon technological revolution that is necessary to deliver the 1.5 degrees world we signed up to in the Paris climate agreement.
In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to publish a report that will warn that rapid and far-reaching” changes to our economy will be needed to achieve this. That’s why France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Bulgaria, and many other parts of the world have already banned fracking. In December the UN will meet in Poland to negotiate the future of the Paris agreement. At a time when the US plans to withdraw from the pact and with Australia on the edge of following suit last month, the UK’s dash for shale gas plays into the hands of those who seek to ruin it – and puts us at odds with a world that’s eager to run away from fossil fuels.
It’s not the first time this government’s shown double standards in the run up to the UN climate talks. Before Paris, it was their decision to scrap their flagship climate policy – a £1bn competition for a plant to capture CO2 and store it safely underground. Three years on, shale gas extraction is imminent any day now and clean energy investment is at its lowest level in 10 years. As shadow minister for international climate change minister, I promise that a Labour government will put an end to that – and that starts with a ban on fracking.
Labour wants to take the path to the clean, low-carbon technologies of the future. The Tories are wedded to the dirty fossil fuels of the past. That is why they weakened planning laws to make drilling a well easier than building a conservatory. That is why they showered fracking companies with favourable tax regimes, described by the former Chancellor as the “most generous in the world”. That is why they have denied renewable energy any new subsidies until 2025, while allowing fracking companies 75 per cent capital allowances. It is a double standard pure and simple.
Fracking will shatter the lives of the people I met last week. For some it already has. Instead of this government protecting them, it has ridden roughshod over democracy and worked hand in glove with the gas companies to ensure nothing gets in their way. Now that summer’s over and the new parliamentary session has begun perhaps it is time for the Energy Minister to visit Lancashire herself. MPs are used to her not listening to them. Perhaps the visionary campaigners of Altcar Moss and Preston New Road can give her a change of heart.