climate change energy

What Cameron should have said about fracking

This morning David Cameron used an article in the Daily Telegraph to call upon the communities of Southern England to embrace gas fracking. “Fracking has real potential to drive energy bills down” he says, it will create jobs, and bring money into local communities. “I want all parts of our nation to share in the benefits: north or south, Conservative or Labour” he says, stopping just short of inviting Cuadrilla to frack his back garden. “We are all in this together.”

So here’s what David Cameron should have said:

Fracking has become a national debate in Britain – and it’s one we can’t afford to get wrong. If we embrace this technology, we will make it impossible to meet our emissions targets and we will condemn future generations to a warmer, more uncertain climate.

There are many arguments for fracking, and many loud calls for Britain to pursue unconventional gas as America has done. Today I want to set out why I believe we should resist those calls – and deal with the worst of the myths about the benefits of fracking.

First, fracking is unlikely to drive down energy bills. Many people are struggling with the cost of living, but it is important to understand the underlying causes of the rising price of gas. Britain’s domestic gas production is in permanent decline, meaning we have to import increasing amounts of gas from overseas. Unconventional gas may be able to offset some of the decline from the North Sea, but nowhere near enough to halt our dependency on foreign imports. As my own government’s research has made clear, fracking is “unlikely to be a game-changer” and “it would be wrong to assume that prices would come down.” The Committee on Climate Change, meanwhile, has suggested that energy bills would be lower in 2030 if we supported renewable energy than if we chose to invest in gas.

Many people look at the United States and claim that if we saw only a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America, we could expect great things here too. However, the number of new gas rigs in the US has plateaued in the last year and a half, as has production, even though the price of gas has begun to rise again after its collapse in 2012.  Much of the fracking boom was fueled by land speculation rather than actual gas production, while initial theoretical reserves turned out to be overestimated by 80% in some areas. With depletion rates of wells sometimes running as high as 32% a year, we should not idolise the US gas boom, let alone hope to recreate it in a much more crowded country with a totally different set of laws around land ownership, planning and resource rights.

Secondly, advocates of fracking promise that it will create jobs in Britain. In fact, one recent study predicted that 74,000 posts could be supported by a thriving shale-gas industry in this country. However, investment in the wind power industry would also create jobs – an estimated 100,000 of them, while lowering our carbon emissions and reducing our dependency on imported gas. Across renewable energy more widely, the figure could be as high as 400,000 jobs created between now and 2020.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that fracking will bring money to local neighbourhoods, as local communities will get a one-off payment of £100,000 for drilling in their area. However, under new guidelines brought in by my government, communities that have a wind farm built near them will receive annual payments of £5,000 per MW of production. A medium sized wind farm of 20 MW would see a return to the community of £100,000 every single year. The message is obvious – if you want your community to benefit from energy production, support wind power where you are.

There are of course environmental concerns, some legitimate, some not. Some say that fracking is safe, and that we can regulate effectively. I say it can never be safe, in an age of climate change, to increase fossil fuel production. In the long term, the only safe fossil fuels are those that are left in the ground. When I came into office, I promised the greenest government ever. For that reason, I will not support fracking in my constituency or anywhere else in Britain. Instead, I will direct the full resources of government to support and encourage renewable energy.

My message to the country is clear – fracking is a technology we cannot afford. For centuries, Britain has led the way in exploiting fossil fuels. We did not know the long-term effects of this, at the start of the industrial revolution. Today we do, and it is time to move beyond the energy sources of the Victorian age. Fracking has no place in Britain’s renewable energy future.


  1. David Cameron and his party no doubt has been enjoying brown bags of money to oil their hands. Some say that money talks.

  2. My concern these days is that David Cameron seems to be somewhat ill-advised on various schemes he is trying to implement (see Internet censorship), whilst sounding like he has a deep and thorough knowledge of the topics. I remember that a few years ago Fracking was a wide spread discussion and even then was deemed unnecessary and potentially harmful to the communities and wildlife surrounding the areas where the fracking takes place. I really can’t understand why for many years education has been teaching children that non-renewable resources are not the solution for long-term sustainability and yet we still seem to be looking in to ways of mining every non-renewable resource this planet has before our leaders fully commit to the inevitable conclusion that sooner or later we need to start solidly investing in renewable energy solutions.

    1. It is a real puzzle, the fracking business. I find it particularly odd that the Conservatives, who are so anxious to avoid ‘industrialising the countryside’ with wind turbines, should be so keen on fracking.

      I’m guessing it’s a lobbying thing, the fossil fuel industry leaning on them. When combined with the institutional skepticism about the climate and environmentalism generally in the Conservative party, it makes more sense to them.

      What’s particularly disappointing is that Cameron made a real attempt to change that culture in opposition, with that famous husky photo shoot and the wind turbine on his house. The it all went out the window when it mattered.

      1. You understand that fracking has less long term visual impact than wind turbines which is what most people worry about. It amuses me that people love to quote scientific consensus when it supports their views but throw other consensus aside if it doesn’t such as fracking or GM.

        1. Agreed about the shorter term visual impact, but ultimately we’re still comparing renewable vs non renewable resources. Wind turbines are set up once, whereas fracking requires other areas to be cleared and mined once the resources are depleted from the original site so there is a continual requirement to relocate and disturb other areas. I do agree that in general the public are most concerned over the visual impact but this to me is wrong. If we want the energy we should be prepared to pay a small price for it, including the visual impact. Also, we have no idea of the long-term effects of fracking which personally is a much bigger concern for me. Not forgetting, there are more methods of renewable technologies than just windfarms that the government should be backing before pressuring us with fracking.

          1. Yes, there are good reasons to object to fracking and bad ones. Some are more scientifically sound than others. I should write a post on that at some point – this post addresses the arguments for, so I should consider the arguments against too.

            Personally, I think the climate implications are far and away the biggest reason to oppose fracking, and more than enough reason to put the kibosh on the whole idea.

          2. We have been fracking globally for 50 years and in the UK for over 25. We have a good idea of the long term effects and they don’t seem very bad.

            Solar is the future, but while it is progressing very quickly it isn’t competitive yet. Gas is the stop gap for the next 20-30 years while we transition to solar. Now in the past Jeremy has agreed that gas is a stop gap. If that is the case then the next question is where should we get that gas from? Should we import it or should we use fracking to produce it in the UK. I’d say for balance of payments and economic reasons fracking in the UK wins. The alternative is to import from lovely places like Russia or the UAE. Either way the the same amount of gas is burnt and CO2 released. I say make sure that CO2 has a Union Jack on it!

  3. In addition to the possibility of water pollution where is this needed water coming from for fracking when river water is being overused for agriculture?

    Water rationing a possibiltiy?

  4. There’s a difference between continuing to use gas as an interim measure while renewable energy comes online, and choosing to expand gas production instead of renewable energy. The government, which is essentially climate skeptic, has chosen the latter – cutting subsidies and tightening rules on renewable energy and wind in particular, while putting in place a gas strategy that makes our CO2 targets unreachable.

    That’s not gas as a transition fuel.

    1. Expanded gas production will displace coal and oil. We can have a different argument about how much we should subsidise renewable installations right now but surely the key task for the next few years is to cut down on coal. Replace high CO2 emissions with medium CO2 emissions. Transition to solar et al takes 20- 30 years. Plenty of time for shale to make a useful difference.

      1. There are a bunch of reasons why it’s not that simple.

        First, the power companies will use whatever’s cheapest, which is why coal use has risen in the last year as they’ve taken advantage of cheaper coal prices (the result of gas production in the US). Unless we actually ban the use of coal, there’s no guarantee that fracking will reduce coal use, since it is unlikely that fracking will bring the price of gas down.

        Second, the government is clearly prioritising fracking over renewables, thus drawing away investment from renewables. This about creating a stable strategy that allows people to plan and invest accordingly, and everything the government is doing right now is undermining renewable energy and increasing fossil fuel dependence.

        Third, fracking isn’t necessarily as clean as its advocates say. If you only count CO2, you wouldn’t notice, but gas wells leak methane, which is a considerably more dangerous greenhouse gas. Leakage varies, but studies in the US have shown that in some cases it is sufficient to make unconventional gas worse than coal.

        1. The EU Large Combustion Plant Directive effectively does ban coal. Also why do you say it is unlikely that fracking will bring down the price of gas. I have seen a report by Poyry that just the shale gas in Lancashire could bring down European gas prices by 2-4%. This is on top of a over 40% reduction in price from other shale in Europe they found likely in a previous report. and before the British Geological Survey found that the Bowland Shale had much more than thought when the report was written (possibly greater than the two largest fields in the US).

          I know that with gas new find can just displace other imports but increasing the supply will ultimately reduce the cost (energy markets and environmentalists can’t ignore economics for ever) and regulation will get coal. Now if we just had a carbon tax.

          1. The Poyry report was written before Poland had to downsize its reserve estimates, and its projection for EU gas prices is predicated on large scale production in Poland. Something will still happen in Poland, but Exxon, Marathon and others have all pulled out as it wasn’t profitable enough.

            Almost nobody thinks that fracking in Britain will bring prices down. Neither the IEA nor Bloomberg think so, and the EIA cautions that it will be much more complicated and expensive than in the US. The government itself doesn’t believe it will bring prices down, if you read what government departments are saying rather than the politicians. It really is Cameron and friends out on a limb here.

          2. Without fracking gas prices are set to rise. Most reports are careful to say fracking won’t necessarily lower prices. That is not the same as saying it won’t have a downward effect on prices. A lower rise than otherwise is still a win.

            It is fair to say with fracking that until we do it we won’t know what we will get out of it. Given that private companies are happy to risk their money on it and the government seem keen to regulate it well I’d say let them get on with it.

            The fact is renewables aren’t ready to replace conventional power generation. Fracking could increase supply in the medium term. Even a 4% cut in gas prices is worth £7.5 billion to European consumers (£50 per household per year in the UK). It makes coal less attractive too, which is good.Of course if fracking isn’t competitive with other sources then the drillers will stop. Trust the market – simples.

  5. There are plenty of studies that would disagree with your assertion that renewable energy can’t provide our needs. It’s true that nothing is a direct swap, but accompanied by the much-needed efficiency measures that we ought to be taking anyway, it’s entirely possible. See the Zero Carbon Britain reports for a start.

    As for the market, I’m actually pretty confident that the gas companies will investigate fracking in Britain and decide it’s not worth the expense and hassle, much like they have in Poland. But you’ll notice that Cameron, Osborne et al are not leaving it to the market. They are quite deliberately carving out a bigger role for gas. It become a political question, its tied in with climate skepticism and that matters.

    As I say, I suspect fracking will stall anyway, but the result will be years of delay in getting on with renewable energy, and years of uncertainty about our energy strategy.

    Gas prices are going to rise regardless of fracking. Nobody’s projections see fracking happening in big enough quantities to offset the decline in North Sea gas, so our dependency on imported gas remains whether we frack or not. As long as we rely on gas as our principle energy source, we will have rising prices. Fracking may slow prices rises by a minuscule margin (the benefits spread across Europe, incidentally, since we buy and sell our gas on an open market) while delaying investment towards the renewable energy we must eventually use.

    Unfortunately, the anti-fracking noise is dominated by hysteria over earthquakes and flaming water. Sigh.

    1. Isn’t it more likely than the government’s pro cracking policies are to show they are doing something to tackle the rising cost of living than climate skeptic? Remember in politics looking like you are doing things is as important as actual achieving anything.

      1. Well that’s true, but they could have acted on the Ofgem report that said that bills would be higher if we stuck to gas than if we shifted to renewable energy. The Conservative party doesn’t really get climate change, so there’s no incentive to push for renewable energy.

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