The energy drought we face is stark. Regulator Ofgem now warns that our back-up energy stocks will fall to 2 per cent by 2015. The chances of blackouts will increase from one in 47 years to one in 12 years. Up until now, we’ve faced the unsavoury choice of keeping coal-fired power stations running – which is bad for the environment – or waiting for the lights to go out. For all the hype over current renewable technologies, they can’t meet UK energy needs without unthinkable hikes in prices. The last Labour government’s reckless failure to replace ageing power stations, and its infatuation with forcing customers to squander billions subsidising inefficient technologies like solar panels and wind farms, saw the number of households in fuel poverty double between 2004 and 2010. That left 5m homes struggling to stay warm in winter.
In truth, the environmental bandwagon, rolling since the Kyoto Protocol, has not made Britain greener. As Oxford University’s energy professor Dieter Helm argues, politicians’ obsession with current renewable technologies amounts to picking “winners [that] turn out to be some of the most expensive ways known to man to marginally reduce carbon emissions.” The government estimates that CO2 emissions produced in the UK fell by 19 per cent between 1990 and 2009, while emissions consumed rose by 20 per cent – driven by a near quadrupling of emissions produced to create Chinese imports. We haven’t kicked our carbon addiction, just replaced domestic with foreign suppliers.
A renaissance in nuclear power can help meet long-term energy demand, while decarbonising the economy. The coalition is close to a deal with EDF for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. But replacing the capacity Labour left to rust will take time – and that is running out.
So last week’s report by the British Geological Survey, estimating 1,329 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the Bowland-Hodder basin – from Cheshire to Lincolnshire – offers Britain a get out of jail card. The reserves equate to 47 years of total UK gas consumption, or 90 years of the UK’s North Sea gas production. Of course, not all of it will be extracted – and it will take time to devise the right regulatory regime. Still, the opportunities in the medium term are immense. The Institute of Directors estimates that it could meet a third of UK’s gas demand, support 74,000 jobs, boost the manufacturing and chemicals sectors, and help rejuvenate the North.
Shale will also help cut energy bills for low and middle income homes, by reducing reliance on expensive imports, and clearing the way to slash the £2.6bn consumers will fork out this year subsidising green boondoggles. Renewable technology can help us produce clean energy. But government’s role should be limited to funding research and development – it has a lousy track record of deciding which commercial ventures to back, as its solar and wind subsidies attest. The shift away from coal and imported gas, both dirtier than shale, will help Britain reduce its carbon emissions. As Helm points out: “Gas is already a much cheaper way of getting down emissions quickly than renewable or nuclear”.
Concerns have been raised about fracking, the firing of water and chemicals into underground rocks to release shale gas. But a review by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society concluded the risks were very low and could be addressed through proper oversight. In reality, the spectre of polluted drinking water and earthquakes has been massively over-exaggerated by ideologically-driven activists.
As well as boosting energy supply and cutting emissions at home, the shale revolution will have major implications abroad. Tapping shale would wean Britain off expensive crude oil from the Middle East, reducing the risk of being sucked into its wars. We’d also be less dependent on Russian oil and gas, so the increasingly cantankerous President Putin can’t hold us over a barrel – one reason he has joined green activists in scaremongering about shale.
Reactionary opposition from those with vested interests cannot be allowed to win the day. Shale offers Britain the chance to forge an energy policy for the twenty-first century that makes economic, as well as environmental, common sense.
Dominic Raab is the Conservative MP for Esher & Walton.