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.