In Somerset, where my Wells constituency resides, we’ve been wrestling with the threat of non-conventional gas extraction. Early license areas were on the Mendip Hills, where the old coalfields possibly offered opportunities for gasification of coalbed methane. The licenses were held for a while, a few rumours of exploratory wells circulated but nothing was ever drilled, and then the licenses were given up. The geology wasn’t suitable and locals breathed a big sigh of relief.
More recently, licenses have been offered over on the Somerset coast. Most were never taken up but a few have been bought by Southwestern Energy, a small gas company based in South Wales. The geology of the Somerset coast doesn’t look to be the most profitable place for gas extraction and – even if the seismological impact of fracking is as low as claimed – that sort of activity in close proximity to a nuclear power station doesn’t seem like the most sensible thing either. Needless to say it is strongly opposed in our county.
Many of my Conservative colleagues are similarly challenged by the possibility of fracking arriving in their area. This might be dismissed as nimbyism by some but our job is to stand up for our community and to reflect the opinion of local residents. Besides, there is a very legitimate question over whether the economic juice is really worth the political squeeze.
The proposal to allow exploratory drilling as permitted development must be decided against. I often draw parallels between the onshore wind industry and fracking as there is a clear inconsistency in the government’s position. They both excite opposition in the areas where they are proposed, although it may well be that there are some areas where communities can be persuaded that there is a benefit in having them. To say that we’re squashing one industry because people don’t like it whilst making it much easier for another, equally disliked, industry is horribly inconsistent, and undermines the argument that we’re making decisions based on facts rather than emotion.
I’ve made the case for rehabilitating onshore wind by insisting that the planning process must be robustly stacked in favour of the communities that might host it. If they don’t want it, they don’t have to have it, end of. We certainly can’t allow a return to the days of smirking planning agents fiddling with their phones whilst district council planning committees said “no” because they knew that direction from DECC would almost certainly mean that the decision was overturned by the planning inspector. We should apply exactly the same logic to applications to frack. If developers can make the case, fine. If they can’t, then they can’t.
Yet fracking is not just a planning decision. There are also concerns over the long-term value of the industry to the UK as we seek to decarbonise. Make no mistake, we need gas for the foreseeable future as a fuel for heating and to generate electricity, but that should not be conflated with the entirely separate issue of where the gas comes from.
Current geopolitical tensions might suggest that we’re better to have an entirely sovereign gas supply, although for my money it’s hard to see our relationships with our most likely suppliers materially changing anytime soon. Others might argue that gas extraction elsewhere in the world might be done to lower environmental standards and so any satisfaction we might feel over fending off fracking here should be offset by guilt over the way the gas industry operates elsewhere. The Treasury would also argue that tax revenues from gas extraction are very helpful too.
There will be some who say that the simplest answer is to transition immediately to renewables and other zero-carbon technologies so that our gas demand falls to zero. Most serious policymakers know, however, that even the fastest of transitions requires gas as a bridging fuel for the next 20 years or more and so we must be realistic about the need to guarantee our gas supply for some time yet.
The solution I propose is that we continue to incentivise late-field exploitation in the North Sea, where there are already communities that depend on and support the industry. The Chancellor announced a welcome change to tax liabilities for decommissioning last year and there is arguably more that we could do to re-grow the gas industry. That also brings the welcome outcome of shifting decommissioning costs to the right, realising a significant saving for the government in the meantime. For those who fret about the security of our gas supply, the lower environmental standards applied by the industry overseas, or diminishing tax revenues for oil and gas, those problems are solved or at least mitigated.
More importantly, it means we’re not wasting political capital and policymaking bandwidth on fracking when there are so many other things that we could be doing to expedite our transition away from oil and gas altogether.
Electrifying our heat and transport networks will significantly reduce our dependency on hydrocarbons. Moreover, all the clean tech that would then be on our roads or in our homes and businesses as a result of that transition would deliver a huge amount of flexibility – both storage and demand response – that changes the current argument over the need for dispatchable gas-fired power.
We must also be looking at the opportunity to deliver a hydrogen economy in the UK too. Many argue, and I tend to agree, that we can’t electrify everything and that we have a very valuable piece of national infrastructure in our gas network that we’d be mad to throw away. I’m certain that electrification technologies will win out no matter what the government does – particularly EVs but also generation, storage and smart-enabled demand shifting behind the meter. However, hydrogen will require quite a lot of political will to get it going.
The rewards are huge. There’s a big industrial opportunity, it answers the thorny issue of inter-seasonal storage and it catalyses the arrival of carbon capture and storage. I’d strongly argue that is a better place for us to be focusing our political and policy making efforts rather than wrestling with voters over the fracking debate.