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23 May 2013

The rightwing consensus on shale gas is about to be torn apart

The prospect of a British shale gas revolution attracts broad support across the centre-right. As well it might do, because unlocking this potential resource bonanza would have major benefits.

For a start, the economy would benefit – a  home grown shale gas industry would undoubtedly  boost growth, certainly help with our balance of payments and quite possibly result in cheaper energy prices. Shale gas, both in Britain and/or on the continent,  would be good for energy security too, reducing European reliance on gas imports from Russia and the Middle East.

Sensible environmentalists also have reason to support shale – not only because it would mean less coal-fired power generation, but because – in the continuing absence of suitable energy storage system – flexible gas-fired generation is the only significant way of managing the variable output from renewables.

But as Geoffrey Lean reports in the Daily Telegraph, less sensible environmentalists not so happy:

  • “...in Lancashire – where fracking has stalled since causing minor earthquakes near Blackpool two years ago – campaigners from throughout Britain gathered for a bring-your-own-tent ‘Frack Camp’, two days of music, presentations, poetry and discussions on campaign strategy, fuelled by ‘freshly prepared vegan and vegetarian foods’.
  • “...In March, Greenpeace erected a fake drilling rig in George Osborne’s Cheshire constituency, and protests have even crossed the water to counties Fermanagh and Down.”

The deep green reaction has prompted a deep blue counter-reaction:

  • “Supporters fulminate against ‘green fanatics’, while the former Conservative deputy leader Peter Lilley... portrayed the much diminished environmental movement as ‘Big Green’, lamenting it had 'eclipsed' the power of Big Oil.”

Measured against the enormous power and influence of the oil and gas industry, talk of ‘big green’ is going too far. There simply aren’t enough hard-baked crusties to stop the development of shale gas. Nimbies, though, are a different matter – and they’re beginning to mobilise:

  • “In West Sussex, meanwhile, better-heeled residents of the Conservative heartland village of Balcombe are getting together more conventionally today to plan ‘peaceful protests’, after a shock announcement that ‘unobtrusive’ round-the-clock exploratory drilling for shale oil and gas will start next month. They will start by accumulating street-by-street petitions – 82 per cent of the villagers are opposed – but some unlikely revolutionaries are already talking of passive resistance. G4S, of Olympics security fame, is being hired just in case.”

Prominent supporters of shale gas like Peter Lilley would no doubt be aghast at any read across from anti-wind to anti-shale protests, but when you look at the potential local impact, shale begins to look like wind, only more so:

  • “Shale gas may well be more controversial even than wind turbines: one poll found that two thirds of Britons would prefer to live near a wind farm than fracking: only 11 per cent went the other way. And there would be lots of it… 10 wells are needed for every square mile and, as they deplete within a year, you have to keep on drilling. The industry hopes it can reduce the impact, but it’s hard to disagree with Tory MP Laura Sandys when she says that once battle is truly joined, windpower will look like ‘a walk in the park’.”

One might also add that whatever the disbenefits of wind turbines, they don’t pollute water sources nor do they cause earthquakes.

The risks of shale gas exploration can and should be manageable, but public opposition to such developments is not based on the cool calculation of cost-benefit analyses, but upon gut reaction (though some cool calculation of property price impacts may also feature).

To have the huge financial impact that its supporters hope for, shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. Even if this physical presence is not a permanently damaging one, it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development. 

So, for the centre-right, a challenge: Will we side with shale gas or side with the protestors? It will be especially interesting to see if the United Kingdom Independence Party stands up for the United Kingdom’s energy independence or whether it just goes for the protest vote. Cheap energy or cheap politics – your call, Nigel Farage.


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