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Nick Grealy: Could France Produce Shale Sooner Than The UK?

Nick Grealy, No Hot Air

I hate to rain on the parade at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil & Gas Garden Party in Westminster later today, but I would like to interject a reality check on UK shale prospects. Today’s sunny skies and a packed group of old friends of shale and many sudden converts to the cause should look into what actually will happen next. Or perhaps not.

Let me be clear: this has absolutely nothing to do with either the geology, or the technical ability of the UK industry, both of which are undoubtedly world class.

What concerns me is something more intrinsic about Britiish political life in general. Two recent newspaper articles, neither one of which mentioned shale energy, make me think about how the UK would actually go about making shale happen. First up was Anthony King in the FT last Saturday.

British government used to be regarded as one of the wonders of the world: intelligent, decisive and sensible, with democratically elected leaders supported by a Rolls-Royce civil service. In the 1950s, a French observer wrote that the British system provided an enviable model of democratic government. “One can only regret,” he added soulfully, “that it could not possibly be translated to any other country.”

Amazingly, many Britons still cling to that cheery view. Sure, our governments do not always get everything right; but the system, they believe, is basically sound. To which the only response can be that of John McEnroe addressing a harassed Wimbledon umpire: “You cannot be serious.”

The article, entitled “Sir Humphrey is useless and our Ministers are worse” has the sub heading  “British Government is no Rolls-Royce.  It is barely motorised”.  King is Professor of Government at Essex University and a widely respected political commentator regularly trotted out during election campaigns analysing polls which he almost single-handedly introduced into British politics in the 1960’s. But as a Canadian, he also knows competence when he sees it. Or not:

One defect in the system is the very one that Britons used to take pride in and that others envied: its decisiveness. Other governments dither; British governments act. The only trouble is that bad decisions are every bit as easy to take as good ones. More grit in the system – notably in the House of Commons – would undoubtedly have ensured that the poll tax was stillborn and that Metronet was never launched.

I’ve often used the D word to express my frustration with UK energy policy in shale and other sectors, and it appeared again in Boris Johnson’s column in the Daily Telegraph on Monday:

As Britain dithers, the rest of the world is getting things done

Our great projects are being stalled by endless consultations and grinding bureaucracy.

Bojo, who has surprised me and others in his role of Mayor of London describes two spectacularly unsuccessful infrastructure projects, the HS2 High Speed Train network and the Heathrow expansion. The inability to deliver is the new British disease. We used to be crippled by unions once upon a time, but the new saboteurs wear suits:

Doug Oakervee is a brilliant man to have in charge of HS2, and if anyone can deliver it, he can. But he is dealing with a system of building major infrastructure projects that is holding this country back. Talk to the big construction firms, and they will tell you the problem is not the cost of actually digging and tunnelling and putting in cables and tracks. Those are apparently roughly the same wherever you are in the world.

It’s the whole nightmare of consultation and litigation – and the huge army of massively expensive and taxpayer-financed secondary activities that is generated by these procedures. It is the environmental impact assessments and the equalities impact assessments and the will-sapping tedium and cost of the consultations. Did you know that in order to build HS2 we are going to spend £1 billion by 2015 — and they won’t have turned a single sod in Buckinghamshire or anywhere else?

That is a billion quid going straight down the gullets of lawyers and planners and consultants before you have even invested in a yard of track. To understand the prohibitive costs of UK infrastructure, you need to take this haemorrhage of cash to consultants, and then multiply it by the time devoted to political dithering.

On Heathrow:

Look at the Turks. They have decided that they need a new six-runway airport at Istanbul, so that they can take advantage of the growing importance of aviation to the world economy. They are almost certainly going to do it for less than 10 billion euros, and long before we have added a single runway anywhere in the South East. Or look at Chep Lap Kok, the airport Doug Oakervee built for Hong Kong. The authorities announced it in 1989 — and opened it nine years later! If you want to get a sense of our sluglike pace in the UK, we announced Heathrow Terminal 5 in 1988, and it took almost 20 years to create; not an airport, just a new terminal, for heaven’s sake (and if anyone thinks the advantage of a third runway at Heathrow is that it would be a “quick fix”, they frankly need their heads examining

Other countries have clear plans for their infrastructure needs over the long term, and the talent and managerial firepower is being moved from one to the next. We don’t have a plan; we have a list of schemes, each of which causes politicians such heeby-jeebies that they waste billions – literally – in optioneering when what they need to do is decide on the right course and crack on with it. We have proved with Crossrail and the Olympics that we have the expertise to deliver big infrastructure projects. But time is money: we spend far too long on bureaucratic procedures and then enormously multiply that expense by a political failure to blast on with the task in hand.

…. Our neighbours are out there investing in airports, while we are investing in consultants.

There’ll be plenty of consultants  in Westminster today. We can have shale gas in this country, but are we going to have shale oil before France, the country that at this stage actually forbids the process?  What the French do have is an ability to deliver grand projects once they finally decide on them.  I’m not being entirely mischievious  here by suggesting to either nation that the great rival will beat them to the greatest economic prize we can likely see in Europe over the next decade, but  I do propose that in energy we need to translate the political decisiveness at the top, now it has finally emerged, into delivery. The essentially undemocratic planning system is only one part of the problem, but one where people like Tony Bosworth of the Friends of the Earth serve the same purpose in blocking UK energy in the 2010’s as Arthur Scargill did, with just as tenuous a mandate, in the 1980’s.

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