The Corner

The U.K. and Europe’s Fracking Fissures

There’s a large new row developing in British politics — with potential for another major row between Britain and the European Union. For the last few months the “Green Agenda” of the Coalition government has been unraveling for one reason after another: the resignation of the ultra-Green fanatic, Chris Huhne, energy secretary and Liberal Democrat, over his being prosecuted for (in effect) committing perjury to conceal driving offenses; a rebellion by 100 Tory MPs opposed to building vast numbers of inefficient “wind farms” that disfigure Britain’s green and pleasant land; the government’s proposal, now likely to be withdrawn, of a “tax on aspiration” that would compel householders making any improvements in their homes to install additional and expensive insulation too; and, yesterday, the publication of an official report proposing to allow the technique of “fracking” to release the shale gas that apparently exists in very large quantities onshore and offshore Britain.

This controversy has been slowly developing because, before it causes a breach between the U.K. and Europe, it has already caused one between the Tory and Lib-Dem partners in the Coalition. As well as being the most pro-European party, the Lib-Dems are also the greenest. Almost all the measures now being re-considered by the government are their own pet schemes. But the costs of energy are rising so sharply for households, partly as a result of these policies — and “fuel poverty” is growing so rapidly — that the Lib-Dems can’t effectively defend them. And backbench Tories, recovering their moxie, are anxious to push onwards from an energy policy rooted in Greenery to one directed to getting as much cheap energy as securely as possible.

And that’s where the shale-gas revolution comes in. According to the geologists (as reported by Reuters), U.K. offshore reserves of shale gas could be as big as one thousand trillion cubic feet (tcf) compared to the country’s annual consumption of 3.5 tcf. Such figures are hard to grasp, but they apparently mean that Britain would regain its earlier North Sea oil status of being one of the main energy producers in the world. It would liberate Britain almost uniquely in Europe — almost because Poland too seemingly has vast shale reserves — from dependence on Middle East oil. Other things being equal — and assuming, as I do, that the shale gas revolution has not been overblown — Britain can look forward to a future of cheap and secure energy supplies for the foreseeable future.

#more#So the balance of opinion in Britain is now shifting against the green agenda. If shale gas can be “fracked” cheaply, then it will undercut such “renewables” as wind power, however heavily they are subsidized — and it will also undercut coal and nuclear power. This shift is very good for Britain, of course, but it cuts against some very large domestic vested interests — all the renewable companies, landowners who rent out their land for wind farms, the Green movement, and not least the ideological interests of one of the governing parties. So the shift is in its early stages, and it will be some time, maybe not until after the next election, that it is fully reflected in a rational British energy policy. 

That’s if the matter is decided in Britain by such outmoded methods as elections. In a posting on The Economist website by their British political columnist, Bagehot, the suggestion is made that British ministers and civil servants are proceeding very nervously on what to do about shale gas because they fear it might provoke a major row between Britain and the EU over science, technology, and the environment because of the European Union’s “irrational” Green-washed attitude to science, energy and the environment:

France has already put in place a moratorium on fracking, they note. Other continental governments may follow, and British sources draw nervous analogies with European hostility towards genetically-modified crops, which have seen draconian controls imposed on all manner of GMO crops (often amid ugly rhetoric about “American corporations” launching a “foreign invasion” of Europe’s pure and ancient fields), regardless of the scientific data. That could spell another row between Britain and the EU, if European-level regulators were to put hurdles in the way of British shale gas exploitation.

(To keep up with the debate generally, follow it on the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which a think tank founded by Lord Lawson [one of Lady Thatcher’s two great finance ministers] to advance the argument that adaptation to global warming, rather than attempted mitigation of it, is the most rational basis for both economic and energy policy. Its director, Benny Peiser, sends out a daily e-mail that includes most of that day’s stories relevant to energy policy; most of these are also available on the website.)

My own guess is that the British will be lucky here. They have Poland on their side already; the other Eastern Europeans could probably be brought around to support the British position by pointing out that Gazprom is the Greens’ most important ally on energy policy. That might be enough to derail any attempts to by the European Commission to extend the French ban on “fracking” over the whole of Europe.

Suppose, however, that I’m wrong and that such a prohibition does make its silent way through the tortuous maze of EU policy-making. Why should a sane British government pay much regard to it? Such a ban would have no merit — see the “irrational” comment in Bagehot’s account of how the EU regards science and energy policy. It would greatly damage a key British national interest. (Nothing surprising there, of course, since the proposed “Tobin tax” on international transactions would damage the City of London and the key interests of no other EU member-state, but alarming all the same.) It would strengthen Gazprom and Middle East oil producers, neither of whom has Europe’s interests in mind. And it would further institutionalize a Luddite approach to science, technology, and economics within European policy-making structures.

The fact that major policy makers in Whitehall are genuinely worried by this prospect — and that Bagehot plainly thinks their anxiety reasonable — testifies yet again to the fact that the British are under what Digby Anderson calls a “spell” on topics associated with the European Union (as they also are with the National Health Service.) A spell is an irrational attachment to some policy or institution despite its foolishness and damaging effects. It renders the spell-bound unable to act even when faced by a life-threatening danger. It’s becoming quite a common ailment. And if you look at President Obama’s energy policy — namely, railing against oil companies and speculators to divert attention away from his refusal to allow either new prospecting or new supplies from Canada — you’ll see that it’s quite catching.


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