Fracking is an ugly word for what is usually not a pretty process. Even its most ardent advocates would find it hard to dispute that the arrival of a hydraulic fracturing plant represents a blemish on the landscape of, say, Lancashire.
There are also the well-known objections on grounds of safety, and some horror stories about householders filling their kettles with flames rather than tap water for their morning cuppa. So fracking has been demonised, even by the standards of the generally unloved fossil-fuel industries.
Yet we must keep things in perspective. A report from the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee – a body that has often been a source of sound common sense on financial and industrial policy – deserves close attention. The committee has called on ministers to pick up the pace on fracking, though some, such as the Chancellor, seem to need no great encouragement on that count.
The committee argues, cogently, that this new industry has the potential to deliver great benefits. We have only to look to the United States to see, at least in economic terms, what fracking can do; defuse an energy crisis, ease the cost of living for all, improve industrial competitiveness via cheaper energy costs, and expand the diversity and thus security of fuel and energy supplies more broadly.
The point about oil and gas extracted by fracking is that they are, in principle, simply more fossil fuels – assuming that gas or oil recovered in this way does not represent some unique threat to the environment or human life. Thus, they should be treated in much the same way as any other hydro-carbon. Of course, it would be far better if all of our energy was generated through clean, renewable means, and more of it certainly should be. Yet coal, oil and gas will remain a crucial part of the energy mix for many decades to come, whether we wish it were so or not. If – and only if – fracking is as safe as those sources and if it can be proven to be less polluting (which much of the evidence does suggest) then it should be allowed a place in a varied and balanced energy system. The same goes for nuclear power.
We are running out of time – indeed may already have done so – to avert a crisis in energy supply. For a nation sitting on a base of coal and frackable oil and gas, and surrounded by the natural gas and oil reserves of the North Sea, and with a fine tradition of nuclear engineering, that is quite a contrivance. Britain is a nation that has traditionally enjoyed plentiful and cheap energy and fuel; from charcoal recovered from woodland in the 17th century onwards, this was, after all, the base of our industrial revolution, prosperity and international power.
This is not a matter of national pride alone, though we might wince at the way we may in time have to depend on the French nuclear industry to keep the lights on. The crisis in Ukraine and the willingness of Russia to use energy supply as a weapon should bring into sharp focus all the seemingly fanciful arguments about energy security. We should take a hard-headed, objective approach to fracking as a source of fossil fuel that could help us bridge the gap until we arrive at a world of truly green energy.