Discussing energy strategy with those sceptical about the need for urgent climate action can be troublesome because they don’t always play straight. There are misrepresentations and distractions. The response to the UK’s planned gas deal with the US is a case in point.
This week you may have encountered the suggestion, whether from a pro-fracking uncle or the onshore gas industry itself, that it is “hypocritical” for the UK government to import fracked gas from the US while upholding a fracking ban at home. The “UK political elite… relishes [the] imminent new deal,” tweeted the broadcaster Andrew Neil, despite “huge expense in terms of dollar cost, CO2 LNG [liquefied natural gas] transport footprint and balance of payments deficit.”
The hypocrisy exists, but not in the way Neil is arguing. If you think about it, it is really not surprising the UK government has one rule for itself and another for other countries: even industry insiders say our geology makes UK fracking unviable. And while transporting gas imports will lead to carbon emissions, building domestic infrastructure would lock them in for far longer.
No, the genuine hypocrisy is in Rishi Sunak’s framing of US gas imports in terms of “energy security”, at a time when his government is still failing to lift the ban on onshore wind and roll out support for energy efficiency measures. In doing so he perpetuates the myth that more gas is the only way out of the energy crunch.
The world already produces more oil and gas than the climate can safely sustain. The International Energy Agency has warned that investment in new fossil fuels must end if climate change is to be limited – yet the globe is now on course to more than double its gas capacity by 2030, according to Climate Action Tracker analysts, thanks to the scramble to shore-up supply in the wake of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. That is more than twice what Russian gas exports amounted to in 2021.
Continuing with these gas extraction plans is a pathway to chaos: fire and flood on a scale that will dwarf the disasters that have unfolded across the world this year. The safest, cheapest and fastest options to achieve true energy security by far are cutting overall energy demand and increasing investment in renewables.
If the UK had done this sooner, our need for expensive gas would be slashed: David Cameron’s decision to “cut the green crap” in 2013 has pushed up the need to import gas by 13 per cent, a Carbon Brief analysis shows. While the think tank E3G projects that energy efficiency improvements and renewables investment could replace Russian gas imports four times over by 2025.
A UK decision to frack domestically would only further compound the error that it is already making in extending licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration. Proposed domestic fields are incapable of meeting the immediate demand – yet will lock in future emissions. And while the UK needs enough gas to tide it through the coming winter, there is no certainty that imports will bring down costs. As E3G’s Colm Britchfield, a policy adviser, said: “Since the UK is integrated into global and, in particular, European energy markets, whether the planned 10 billion cubic metres of LNG – a two thirds increase on current LNG imports – will stay within UK shores and bring down energy costs depends on whether the UK is willing to pay more than other markets.”
According to Nick Bryer from the 350.org campaign group, to truly avoid accusations of hypocrisy the government should not only refuse to import fracked gas from the US – it should also prevent companies such as Shell and BP from fracking in Argentina, where indigenous communities in the Vaca Muerta region are resisting new projects.
In the meantime, this winter’s energy crunch must be seen for what it truly is: a short-term gas shortage that would be better fixed with short-term imports rather than a long-term commitment to expensive and planet-polluting new domestic gas infrastructure.