The British government are committed to fracking for gas in England. At the last count only 15% of people were in favour of fracking, but the decision has been made, whether there is support for it or not.
I’m enough of a realist to recognise that Britain will be using gas for many years yet. I’m not against fracking on principle, and I actually agree with energy minister Claire Perry that there’s a lot of scaremongering around fracking. I oppose it because it prolongs the power of fossil fuels and delays the transition to renewable energy. If there was a level playing field I would be less opposed, but the government has been deliberately holding renewable energy back while promoting fracking. You only have to compare the planning regime around wind turbines with the planning rules around fracking to see that this is not a conspiracy theory.
Even if you support fracking however, there are reasons to believe that it’s the wrong energy choice for Britain. I can see why people want it: they’ve seen what’s happened across the Atlantic and they want a slice of it. “If we only see a fraction of the impact shale gas has had in America” said David Cameron, “we can expect to see lower energy prices in this country.”
But Britain is not America. Here are five reasons why fracking will not work the same way here:
1) Land ownership – in the US, land owners also own the mineral rights to any resources under their property. That puts oil, coal and gas in private hands and creates a clear incentive to exploit them. In the UK, the state owns all mineral rights. Companies will pay for access, but gas under your land does not imply personal fortune in the same way that in can stateside.
There’s a secondary effect here too. In Britain businesses negotiate rights with the state, and it’s in the government’s interests to keep it simple and deal with a handful of larger companies. Where resources are private, as they are in the US, smaller oil and gas companies can spring up and liase directly with landowners. That’s one of the main reasons why America has such a diverse and dynamic extractive industry, and it cannot be replicated in Britain.
2) Population density – if you’re fracking in New Mexico, there are vast areas where population density falls to less than ten people per square mile. New Mexico is larger than the whole of the UK, and there are parts of it that you could frack with barely anybody noticing. The realities of fracking in a small country are completely different. Lancashire has a population density of around 774 per square mile. There are a lot more people to inconvenience, and more people to come out and protest if they disapprove.
3) The countryside – on a related note, when people come out to protest, they will often be doing so in Conservative constituencies. Politicians might support government policy in theory, but how quickly will that change when fracking rigs actually start appearing in the South Downs or Surrey hills? Many of those same people railed against wind turbines for ‘industrialising the countryside’, and the Tories were able to play their ‘party of the countryside’ card to halt their construction. All the same arguments apply to fracking, and the threat of deselection or losing voters will turn many Tory politicians against fracking. It already has, and the harder the government pushes for it, the more outspoken those internal opponents will become.
4) It’s unnecessary – or at least not as necessary as people make out. Some argue that we need gas to wean Britain off coal, like the US has done, and it should therefore be considered a greener option. But if we rewind ten years to 2009, Britain was getting 44% of its electricity from gas, and 27% from coal. The most recent figures show coal declining to just 5%, and gas dropping to 39%. So we’ve already dramatically reduced coal use, and we didn’t need more gas to pick up the slack – that was provided by renewable energy.
On the other hand, many opponent of fracking concentrate on the role of gas in electricity generation, and forget that what we’re actually talking about is gas for heating. 80% of Britain’s heating is gas powered, including my own. 40% of that comes from the North Sea and that percentage is declining. Surely it makes sense to raise production on land and reduce our dependency on imports, including the 1% of our gas that comes from Russia?
True, but Britain is one of the weakest countries in Europe on heating efficiency. 30% of Britain’s homes score an efficiency rating of E,F or G and one in five households live in fuel poverty. An efficiency drive could reduce our gas use enough to make fracking’s contribution irrelevant, and have all kinds of social benefits too – and yet funding for energy saving measures has collapsed in recent years. It’s also possible to build homes that have no heating needs, but standards for new homes have been lowered. Renewable heat and non-fossil fuel sources of gas are both growth industries. If we pursued all of these things, we wouldn’t need fracking.
5) Incompetence – even if you’re still convinced that fracking is vital, there’s a final reason why it’s unlikely to happen in Britain and that’s that the government has got it wrong. In order to win support for fracking when nobody wanted it, the Conservatives promised the most robust regulations possible. We were going to frack, and be the most responsible frackers in the world. As part of those rules, rigs had to suspend activity if they triggered a earthquake greater than 0.5 on the Richter scale. That’s a minuscule earthquake, far below the threshold for anyone to notice, let alone do any damage.
As it happens, Cuadrilla’s high profile Preston New Road site triggers these all the time, and loses £94,000 for every day it’s offline. The company warns that the regulations are ‘strangling’ the industry, but the government is aware of how bad it will look if they soften the rules now, especially with so many Tory MPs coming out against it. It may change, but so far despite all the tax breaks and unwavering support, the government has managed to make a regulatory environment that makes commercial fracking impossible.
Add all this together, and I don’t see how fracking will make any contribution at all, let alone deliver a energy revolution. Best get started on that efficiency drive then.