1. Social
October 19, 2016

It's not just environmentalists who think fracking is bad for Britain. It's economists, too

By India Bourke

Just hours after a speech in which Theresa May expounded the values of “good” government and “ordinary working-class” voters, her government has jumped straight back into the pockets of big business. On 6 October, the communities secretary Sajid Javid announced that the shale company Cuadrilla had won its appeal to frack for gas at Preston New Road – overturning an earlier ruling by Lancashire county council.

Howls of hypocrisy have risen from opposition parties, who accuse the government of being democratic only when it suits. “Today’s decision shows the yawning gap between the government’s rhetoric and the reality of their policies”, said Green MP and co-leader Caroline Lucas.

So, is this a brave rejection of Nimbyism by the government, in favour of providing cheaper, cleaner energy to the masses? Or is May stumbling down an expensive and dirty path that could leave the wider public – and perhaps even her own government – out in the cold?

Cuadrilla’s planning application was rejected by the council back in June, on the grounds of noise and visual impact. ;Complaints of local disruption echo many of the concerns raised about windfarms. But in the case of fracking, local communities have been backed up by the wider environmental movement.

The very same week Javid made his decision, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change reached the requisite level of international support to enter into force. May’s promise to sign the UK up to its targets “by the end of the year” will entail levels of carbon emissions reduction that are currently incompatible with full-scale fracking. This will be especially true, according to the independent Committee on Climate Change, if we continue to import gas and fail to reduce the amount of methane currently released during the fracking process.

In some ways the government’s announcement comes as little surprise. Cameron’s government also massively played down environmental concerns when it came to energy policy. The cost to the environment was repeatedly placed second to the needs of security and price. The expense of installing renewable infrastructure was thus flagged as justification for cutting back on solar subsidies. This strategy conveniently allowed the conservatives to pander to the interests of both big business and a large chunk of their rural, Middle England, constituencies.

Unfortunately for May, this strategy is now, like shale rock, full of fissures. Fracking doesn’t make environmental sense, but nor does it work out economically. Not only is Europe currently awash with cheap gas, but the costs of renewables are tumbling. Professor Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, told the Guardian that: “The economics of shale extraction in the UK are still highly uncertain, and it is not known whether shale production will deliver gas cheaper than that currently used by UK consumers.”

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Meanwhile, public opposition to fracking is also at a record high. Just 19 per cent of people backed exploratory drilling in the government’s latest survey.

So why doesn’t the government focus its energy into extending our renewable infrastructure and our cables to other European countries instead? Perhaps because a nostalgic, nationalist rhetoric of self-sufficiency was what brought May herself to power.

According to Jonathan Gaventa at E3G, expanded energy links with Europe could help cover supply shortfalls and bring down costs as well as carbon. In this light, the post-Brexit shift to a more nation-centric rhetoric is something that could hit people in their pockets as well as their politics. Not least since government backing for expanded interconnection with a European North Sea Grid has been put on hold since June.

With the decision to support fracking exploration, May is thus treading on deeply unstable ground. If costs soar, then arguments about self-sufficiency may seem substantially less attractive.

Each new application to frack is pulling the coalition of environmentalists and local communities ever closer – trumping old divides between individualist and collective thinking. That’s omething Labour has perhaps cottoned onto with its recent annoucement that it would support an outright ban. As the Lancashire county council’s slogan puts it: “In Concilio consulium” – “In council is wisdom”. 

India Bourke is editorial assistant at the New Statesman, where this piece was originally published. 

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