Jim Armitage: Don't expect shale gas to cause economic explosions on this side of the Pond

  • @ArmitageJim

Outlook Sorry to deflate your balloon, Mr Osborne, but I fear much of the excitement about UK shale gas will prove to be so much fracking hot air.

Sure, in the US, the discovery of the flammable stuff in vast swaths of empty mining and agricultural beltland has had a tremendous impact on the economy. Gas prices there have plummeted just as consumers and industry needed a financial shot in the arm. Experts reckon it will be self sufficient within a few years.

But this is one occasion where the UK will not be catching a cold when America sneezes. When it comes to activities involving digging up large tracts of land, Britain is a very different country.

For an obvious start, there are way more of us than them – acre for acre, I mean. Population density in the US is about 32 people per square kilometre compared with 250 in the UK.

As Cuadrilla has already found in Lancashire, if your fracking attempts trigger mini-earthquakes on the outskirts of Blackpool, residents tend to notice. Not so in many parts of the US. And I can't see the bribe of £100,000 to local communities being enough to convince many.

Even if shale gas is found to be in existence in the middle of nowhere, middles-of-nowhere in this country tend to be areas of outstanding natural beauty harbouring sensitive locals and environmentalists. They have Ohio. We have Surrey (don't laugh – parts of Surrey, Kent and Sussex are veritable gas sponges, if you believe the industry).

Furthermore, and perhaps even more key, we still don't know what is the quality of our gas reserves.

That's partly as a result of another big difference between here and the US. Here, the state owns all the natural resources. As anyone who's seen There Will Be Blood can testify, in the US, the landowner owns his land from the surface down to the very core of the earth. That makes it way easier for explorers to win licences in the US and has triggered an explosion in the number of would-be Daniel Plainviews (that was the Daniel Day-Lewis character, in case you've forgotten) carting around shale gas testing kits. And the more explorers digging holes in the ground, the more strikes you're going to get – good and bad.

Clearly, the Government has fallen hard for the gas companies' pitch on fracking – the excellently connected Cuadrilla chairman Lord Browne, former Sun King at BP, of course, has a Rolodex to die for on both sides of the House. It will be minded to grant licences wherever possible, but don't expect the process to be quick.

(Note, by the way, that Lord Browne's old company, a big player in US fracking, is going nowhere near UK shale.)

Poor old Poland fell for the fracking story a couple of years back. It believed shale gas could end its reliance on the evil empire of Russia. And the geological surveys certainly proved it had plentiful resources. Sadly, wells have not come up with a fraction of the success hoped for. Only last month, two major American explorers packed up their kit and went home. Exxon upped sticks last year.

Yes, the gas is down there. But getting it out is a whole other matter.