Britain has the potential to become a global pioneer in fracking, much as our last energy boom allowed us to become one in off-shore drilling. Nimbyism is a poor reason to derail the Infrastructure Bill.
By most estimates, the United Kingdom uses about three trillion cubic feet of natural gas every year. According to the British Geological Survey, there could be somewhere in the region of 1,329 trillion cubic feet of such gas under northern England alone. We would be mad to leave it there.
We may be about to be mad. Today, the parliamentary environmental audit committee (EAC) will call for a moratorium on fracking — the hydraulic extraction of gas from shale rock. This, on the day that the House of Commons votes on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, parts of which are intended to make fracking an easier and more commercially viable prospect in Britain.
David Cameron, in the past, has declared that his government wishes to “go all out” to create a shale gas industry in Britain. His former environment secretary, Caroline Spelman, is a senior member of that committee, and had already called for a ban. With such broad opposition, the vote is likely to be fraught. Labour has already sought to amend the bill, with the shadow environment secretary, Caroline Flint, also saying that fracking should be prohibited until regulations are significantly tightened.
Some argue that plunging oil prices have diminished the need for fracking. This is a dangerously short-sighted stance, and not only because such prices could of course climb again. A viable fracking industry could create up to 30,000 British jobs, and mainly in areas of the northeast and Scotland where such jobs are badly needed. Moreover, whereas there is indeed some evidence that cheap oil has hit the American fracking industry hard, the effect upon a nascent British industry is likely to be quite different. Whereas America fracks for a huge amount of crude oil itself, most potential British fracking (except within the Weald basin in the southeast of England) would be for gas. Earlier this month, the chief executive of Cuadrilla, a prominent fracking company,suggested that a decline in oil profitability could in fact lower the costs of a competing industry.
Certainly, the public case for fracking has been ill-made. It is notable, and regrettable, that there has been very little debate over the diplomatic merits of energy self-sufficiency. As North Sea gas continues to decline, Britain is likely to import more than two thirds of its supply by the end of this decade. This makes us vulnerable to upsets in the European gas industry, which is dominated (even if our own imports as yet are not) by Russia. Mr Cameron was also correct when he suggested, almost a year ago, that a great many opponents of fracking fail to grasp the basics of what the procedure involves, in particular the assumption that heavy and violent drilling works will be constant and intrusive, rather than initial and brief.
Many opponents of fracking cite environmental concerns, and the EAC today refers explicitly to British commitments to lower carbon emissions. Yet it seems naive to presume that halting fracking will push us towards greener fuels when in fact the opposite is likely to happen: a greater and longer reliance upon coal. In truth, most opposition to fracking is not environmentalism but nimbyism in disguise, with an ironic similarity to opposition to wind turbines.