One of the reasons that the language in which you’re reading these words is the most widespread on Earth is that Great Britain happened to be rich in coal deposits. There were plenty of other places that might have industrialised first, from the Netherlands to China. The good fortune of our eighteenth century ancestors was that, just when they needed it, they stumbled upon a cheap source of energy. Coal powered the new mills, releasing millions of employees to do different work and creating a massive consumer class. Britain became the greatest nation in the world.
Now, just when we need it again, we may have access to another source of cheap energy in the form of shale gas. Shale gas extraction is responsible, in no small measure, for nudging the US economy out of its nose-dive (and thus ensuring the re-election of Barack Obama). As energy prices fall, so do production costs. People get more out of less, and the economy grows.
When I made the above speech in the European Parliament, I got a Tweet from a former secondary school teacher: ‘YOU SEARCH FOR SHALE IN YOUR BACKYARD YOU RIGHT WING XXXXXX’. The kisses were a sweet touch, and her point was a good one. One of the reasons that the United States has been so quick to make use of its own shale gas reserves is that, broadly speaking, Americans own whatever is underneath their property, and thus have every incentive to ‘search for shale in their own backyards’. Britain, which has a similar common law system, could very easily adopt the same approach. The potential benefits are huge since, as a result of North Sea gas, we already have a great deal of infrastructure in place.
Brussels, though, seems determined to place obstacles in our path. MEPs have just voted to impose all manner of restrictions on shale gas extraction, including an outright ban in certain areas. The shale gas deposits that exist across northern Europe – in an arc running from Britain to the Baltic – remain untapped, while Europe continues to depend for its gas on Putin’s Russia. Yet again, the EU seems determined to condemn its peoples to avoidable hardship.