A test drilling site for shale gas near Banks on the outskirts of Southport, Lancashire. Photograph: Ashley Cooper Corbis
The UK’s priority should be to develop a low-carbon energy mix, while encouraging growth from those industries.
In May this year, academics from Washington State University published research confirming a long-held suspicion: being loud and confident is a more effective way to win an argument than being right. The researchers assiduously mined their data from more than 1bn Tweets, but a quick look at the increasingly polarised debate about shale gas in the UK might have saved them some time.
For a significant number of climate-sceptic Tories and rightwing commentators, shale is a silver bullet. The hapless energy secretary, Ed Davey, has been sidelined by George Osborne, who appears to be setting energy policy on the advice of his father-in-law, Lord Howell.
The intervention of Boris Johnson last week has, I suspect, more to with his desire to be on side with discontented Tory MPs than any real appreciation of energy policy. His description of gas as “clean” and “green” was both crowd-pleasing and simply wrong.
But taken together with George Osborne’s statements about “cheap” gas, the chancellor’s conference speech trumpeting tax breaks for the industry and the energy minister’s pledge to make it “easier” for fracking to happen, Boris' comments form part of a Tory campaign to present shale gas as an abundant, immediately available, cheap source of energy that solves all of our problems. By simplistically extrapolating from the experience of the US, they have created a false prospectus about a controversial technology instead of providing the rational, evidence-led debate that is required.
Against that backdrop, it is not altogether surprising that the legitimate environmental concerns of those living in the vicinity of potential exploration and extraction sites have been seized upon by some of those who have a fundamental objection to the use of any fossil fuels in our energy mix. Anti-gas campaigners make claims about earthquakes and water contamination, drawing on early experiences in the US to suggest that a wrecked landscape is the inevitable consequence of fracking.
In reality, many of these concerns are a reflection of the dangers of under-regulation. This is why in March 2012, as Labour energy spokesman, I set out six clear regulatory conditions that should be met prior to any extraction taking place. Robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring are the pre-requisites in addressing those legitimate and deeply-held concerns while also, as former UK scientific adviser Sir David King put it, laying to rest the “big scares” of earthquakes and water contamination.
Ensuring the regulatory framework is right is, however, only part of the story. If shale gas is extractable in the UK (and nobody can say with any degree of confidence what the likely recoverable reserves actually are until exploratory drilling has taken place), the question is what part gas should play in our wider energy mix. The UK’s priority should be to encourage as low-carbon an energy mix as possible, while maximising the potential for jobs and growth from those developing industries.
Just as it is irresponsible to suggest shale gas is the answer in isolation, so it is unrealistic to suggest renewable energy alone can deliver all of our energy needs in the medium term. The UK will still need significant amounts of gas – both for peaking electricity capacity in the medium term, and to account for the 80% of our heating that currently relies on the fuel.
Davey’s opposition to his own policy of a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector is indicative of the incoherence of the government’s approach. Ensuring there is a sense of direction towards low carbon electricity will help drive the investment and promote the supply chain and associated jobs, increase our energy security and reduce our reliance on volatile fossil fuels by making the most of our undeniable potential for renewable energy in the UK. It would also provide clarity that our system should be backed up by, not based on, gas.
When we import so much of the gas we use, it is sensible, credible and consistent with a commitment to low-carbon electricity generation to explore the potential of an indigenous source of gas. Not to increase the amount of gas we use, but to reduce our reliance on imported gas. The amount of gas the UK imports has increased as North Sea reserves have depleted in recent years.
Taking an absolutist position on shale gas, at either extreme, is a good way to get lurid headlines. It does little to encourage a rational and sensible discussion of the place of gas, and the source of that gas, in our wider energy mix.
Labour is clear that we will need to have a balanced energy mix for the future – that mix should be as low carbon as possible without endangering our energy security. It should prioritise the development of predictable renewable technologies and carbon capture and storage. It should be designed with the aim of maximising the amount of growth and jobs we can secure for the UK to help rebalance the economy geographically as well as by sector.
There remain questions to answer about shale gas in the UK, but they are best answered on the basis of evidence derived from carefully regulated and comprehensively monitored exploration. Extraction should only take place with the highest possible level of regulation and on the basis of using an indigenous supply of gas to complement the move to the sustainable, low carbon energy mix that those who are serious about energy know is an imperative for our collective future. Energy policy requires responsible leadership, not simplistic posturing.