With North Sea reserves dwindling, only a shale revolution can safeguard our national security
There are streets in London where you can feel the slight rumble of Underground trains deep below the pavement. You would have to be barefoot (not recommended) and hypersensitive, the traffic around you would have to stop (good luck with that), but you would briefly pick up something as fleeting as a butterfly’s wing. That’s the kind of nano-tremor driving nimby protesters to block exploratory fracking. A government that cares about reducing future dependence on energy imports, that cares about the national security implications of dwindling North Sea oil and gas, should embrace the shale revolution or at least test its potential. Instead, as timid as the demonstrators are loud, it straps the drillers into a ridiculously tight regulatory corset.
The planet may one day be saved by renewable energy but some of its most basic problems have not yet been resolved. Solar panels are cost competitive as a niche energy source but when deployed en masse the economics is not that convincing. The search for the perfect lithium-ion battery capable of storing solar energy is elusive. Britain has the largest installed offshore wind capacity in the world but that still accounts for only 8 per cent of our generated electricity. There’s going to have to be a substantial fossil fuel and nuclear input for at least three decades.
Each energy source has drawbacks but whatever those Lancastrian anoraks may say about the menace of earthquakes, fracking is likely to be the surest way of cutting our growing dependency on gas imports. The benefits will come not only in future pricing but also in the way that shale can transform a country’s geopolitical situation. Take the United States: the shale boom has turned it into the world’s biggest producer of crude oil. It wasn’t so long ago that Opec action could force angry motorists to queue for a day to fill up their tanks. Now the US looks set to become a net exporter of oil by 2021. And it is keen to sell its liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the world.
The security gains from this turnaround are already becoming clear and they don’t just make America safer. Poland is building an LNG terminal in the confidence that US supplies will help central Europe wean itself off Russia’s Gazprom. Tomorrow the US extends its sanctions to countries that have been buying oil from Iran — Japan, South Korea, Turkey, India and China could face difficulties trading on the American market unless they shun Tehran. Iran’s economy is predicted to contract by 6 per cent as a result, while inflation is soaring towards 40 per cent. The aim is to force concessions out of the Iranian regime and the move has been made possible only by the flexibility the US has gained through shale production.