The debate about the exploitation of shale gas should be seen in the context of what the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has described as the fight against the “green blob”. Echoing Michael Gove’s battles with the anti-reform “education blob”, Mr Paterson believes that certain environmental campaigners have become absolutist in their opposition to change.
They object to river dredging, putting wildlife habitats before the protection of communities from flooding. They oppose agricultural technologies, even though innovations such as GM crops could deliver cheaper and more nutritious food to the poorest people across the globe. In Britain the “green blob” opposes all green field development for desperately needed new social housing even when many green fields are of dubious environmental merit.
There are some legitimate concerns about fracking, but not on the scale that absolutists claim. Too much is at stake for the British economy and for the environment to allow them to dominate the debate. Independent experts have argued that fracking could meet a fifth of the UK’s future peak gas needs and create more than 30,000 jobs, many in northwest England and central Scotland. The indirect economic benefits could be much greater if shale gas eventually reduces energy prices and encourages manufacturers to expand in Britain.
While the economic advantages of fracking are self-evident, so too are those for the environment. Fracking involves a much smaller carbon footprint than coal or the import of gas from overseas. It keeps the lights on when wind turbines are not turning. It increases the diversity of the UK energy mix, reducing exposure to a spike in the cost of energy from unstable parts of the world.
Yesterday the coalition announced positive news for supporters of fracking and for moderate voices within the conservation movement. Test drilling could begin within six months of applications being submitted, much faster than the 15-month process that has been typical of applications to exploit other onshore reserves.
The good news for mainstream conservationists came with the decision of ministers to protect national parks, designated areas of outstanding beauty and world heritage sites from any exploitation in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. This should pacify those who do have legitimate concerns for the protection of the countryside and it might well be that the government has learnt an important lesson from the forestry privatisation programme that it abandoned earlier in this parliament. […]
The danger is that the concessions announced by Matthew Hancock, the energy minister, and Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon will only embolden opponents. The National Trust, for example, has already banked the protections offered to areas of outstanding beauty and has called for areas of scientific interest to enjoy the same protection. The government must be strong enough to resist further tinkering with its policies. Investors hate uncertainty and that could yet discourage investment in the jobs and energy security that shale gas can bring to Britain.