It is not difficult to see why George Osborne is so enthusiastic about the possibilities of shale gas. Just look at America: the bonanza unleashed by “hydraulic fracturing” has sent energy prices tumbling by three-quarters, given the economy a welcome fillip, and set the US well on the way to self-sufficiency – taking all that implies for geopolitical relations with, say, the Middle East.
The notion that Britain might follow suit is an alluring one. Sky-high electricity bills are already a headache; and, with demand set to double by 2050, and much of our dirty, obsolete infrastructure in need of replacement, there is no relief in sight. Meanwhile, dwindling North Sea reserves raise the uncomfortable prospect of relying on imports from other – often diplomatically unsavoury – parts of the world.
Vast reserves of gas just beneath our feet would be a real boon, then. And although critics warn that another “dash for gas” will set back efforts to develop renewable power, the scale of the looming energy crunch is such that it is hardly a matter of either/or. Indeed, given that energy ranks alongside demographic change as one of Britain’s more intractable problems, all available options must be explored.
The Chancellor is certainly convinced. “Shale gas is the future and we will make it happen,” he claimed last month, unveiling a Budget that included tax breaks for exploratory drilling projects and the promise of assistance in negotiating the planning regime. Now, the Government is mulling sweeteners for local residents, in the hope that the promise of lower bills, or even funding for community projects, will bring opponents round.
The problem, of course, is fracking. Shale gas can only be extracted by pumping fluids into the ground at high enough pressure to break up the rock. Opponents warn of earthquakes, chemicals in the water table and pollutants in the air. The US has its share of anti-fracking campaigners, but it is Europe where such concerns are a real brake on development. In some countries – notably France, the Netherlands and parts of Germany – drilling is banned altogether.
In 2011, following two seismic tremors linked to shale-gas exploration near Blackpool, Britain, too, imposed a moratorium on fracking. But the ban was lifted in December, after experts concluded that such problems could be avoided in future by closer regulation. The general public remains deeply sceptical, however; and local communities, many of them in the Conservative heartlands of the South-east – where some of Britain’s most fertile shale deposits are thought to be – are up in arms at the prospect of drilling on their doorsteps.
Promises of perks are no bad thing. But they do not reach the heart of the matter. Hostility to a local shale-gas well is not just Nimbyistic “what’s in it for me”; it also springs from reasonable – if ill-informed – concerns about safety. Instead of focusing on big-picture economics, the Government needs to answer these questions, producing persuasive evidence that pollution horror stories from the US record the teething problems of a young industry that can now be avoided. Making clear that a local well will not blight the landscape would also help.
Shale gas proponents may yet have to trim their ambitions. Not only is crowded Britain a far cry from the wide open spaces of the US. The size of our deposits is also still far from certain, and it is even less clear how much might be commercially produced. Either way, it will be many years before shale gas is lighting our homes. That is not to say that unconventional energy supplies do not have potential. They absolutely do. But there is much groundwork still to do.Reuse content