DEBATE: Is fracking the answer to sky-high energy bills?

Jack Richardson

October 14, 2021

Harry Wilkinson, Head of Policy at Net Zero Watch, argues YES

There is currently an energy price crisis, and the Government should be doing everything it can to keep bills as low as possible. The reality of high energy prices is people struggling to stay warm in winter and businesses going bust.

Whether we like it or not, the UK will be reliant on natural gas for many decades to come, and possibly longer. Natural gas is currently both the dominant source of electricity generation as well as the fuel that is used by the overwhelming majority to heat their homes. So we need cheap gas, and we need it now.

Unfortunately, gas is not cheap right now and that is largely to do with government decision-making. Yes, there may be a global gas price spike, but we still pay an extraordinary 6 times what the US pays. There, the Government has not got in the way of a shale revolution, which has seen consumers benefit to the tune of $2,500 per household in lower annual energy costs. Those consumer savings benefit the poorest households most, because they spend the largest proportion of their income on energy.

We in Britain have decided that rather than access this veritable gold-mine beneath our feet, we would rather listen to climate activists who refuse to acknowledge reality. The reality is that we still need gas and it’s better to use our own than ship it from abroad. Exploiting our own shale gas resources can reduce transport emissions and support tens of thousands of high-skilled jobs in regions in desperate need of ‘levelling up’. According to consultants at EY, the development of shale gas in the UK could create £33bn of supply-chain activities and support 64,000 jobs.

With prices sky-rocketing, we simply can’t afford to miss an opportunity to use what’s right in front of us. To do so would be to casually dismiss the tens of thousands of Excess Winter Deaths that we see each year, many of which are linked to fuel poverty. We simply must do everything we can to get bills down. This is a no-brainer: we must go all out for shale gas now.

Jack Richardson, Climate Programmes Manager at Conservative Environment Network, argues NO

Fracking never got going here because the Oil and Gas Authority found it unsafe. Unlike the US, which spans a continent, we don’t have the space for it. If the Government were to break a manifesto pledge in bringing it back without proof it could be done safely, fracking would need a watertight political and economic case. It has neither, and never will. 

Firstly, it lacks any political backing. Even if existing planning and regulatory frameworks were relaxed to help fracking companies exploit shale gas, the Government would have to overcome unrelenting local and public opposition and a mountain of litigation. Understandably, people don’t like their houses losing its value nor HGVs clogging up unsuitable country roads. 

Fracking is usually depicted as ‘something for the North’ in supportive opinion columns, but changing the rules to allow exploration of the Bowland basin would necessarily open up the Weald basin – bringing fracking to the South East. Altogether, this would probably ignite a larger Parliamentary rebellion than Oliver Cromwell’s.  

But let’s imagine for a moment that the UK Government (which has famously nailed its colours firmly to the mast of net zero more than any country in the world) does suddenly decide to take on Parliament and the public. Would it make any economic sense in 2021? In short: no. 

As the National Audit Office found, our gas prices inevitably reflect those in Europe because gas is a globally traded commodity. We’d need an impossibly large influx of fracking to make a dent on European prices and cut our gas bills substantially. It would certainly not solve gas’ inherent volatility. 

We could either spend the next decade continuing our world-leading scale up of wind and solar, which is creating thousands of jobs and the cheapest new electricity available right now, while improving energy efficiency across the economy, or we can flog the dead horse of fracking again.

Authors

Written by Jack Richardson

Jack Richardson is Policy Coordinator at the Conservative Environment Network.

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