What a time to be a fracker. No sooner had they ordered fresh geological surveys, drill bits, hard hats and barbed wire, than their hopes have been dashed.
[But the ban on building new on-shore wind farms remains, despite them being the cheapest and quickest way to increase sustainable power generation. No logic to Tory thinking. – Owl]
Rishi Sunak has reinstated the fracking ban – but the damage of the Truss era is done
In his first policy U-turn, announced as a response to a question from Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, Rishi Sunak has restored the moratorium on extracting shale gas that formed part of the 2019 election manifesto. Mr Sunak has made many errors of judgement in his brief but meteoric rise to power, but on this he deserves lavish praise.
Of course, there is a political aspect to the change of tone and policy. The fracking policy affected areas such as Lancashire, Yorkshire and Somerset which had plentiful supplies of marginal parliamentary constituencies as well as shale gas. Whether justified or not, residents feared that fracking would produce earthquakes and devastate house prices, as well as cause noise, traffic and noxious fumes during and after development.
The voters in these areas are disinclined to believe in assurances from fossil fuel companies that fracking is “safe”. Jacob Rees-Mogg declared that he’d be happy for it to take place in his back garden, but of course no such licence has been applied for that affects the Rees-Mogg estate.
In itself, the new ban will leave fossil fuels in the ground, help contain greenhouse gas emissions and will make it marginally easier to meet the Cop26 targets on climate change.
Symbolically, the revived ban is a clear signal that the Sunak government is at least somewhat more serious about climate change than Liz Truss was, and that is welcome. How far it will be followed by other measures designed to deal with the transcendent issue of our items is less clear.
Investing in green technology, insulating Britain’s stock of older, draughty homes and generating more power from renewables will cost public money, one way or another. There is little sign, for example, that the ban on new onshore wind turbines will be lifted or new solar farms encouraged. That investment will soon repay itself in cheaper energy supplies and stronger energy security, but the pressures on public spending are well-known and the Tories seem to have a visceral aversion to any change to rural land use (whether farmers and landowners agree or not).
They are certainly not acting like there is a climate emergency, or indeed a man in the Kremlin determined to “weaponise” energy. Britain is better off and safer with green energy, underpinned by a steady base load of nuclear power and a rapid run-down on fossil fuel usage. The UK is in a strong position to be something like what Boris Johnson called, albeit with typical hyperbole, “the Saudi Arabia” of wind.
Such confusions about policy are damaging to investment, whether in fossil fuels or renewables. Before the fall of Mr Johnson, they had no hope of being able to extract shale gas from Britain’s (or more accurately England’s) apparently plentiful reserves. Indeed, one of the few pieces of advice offered in public by Mr Johnson to his successor was that fracking wasn’t really worth it.
Then came the arrival of the impetuous Liz Truss, enthusiastically abetted by Mr Rees-Mogg, and her bold move to reverse the ban imposed by her predecessor. She often added that fracking would not be permitted without local support, but the method by which that would be measured and obtained was opaque. However, her intent was plain.
In one of her last legislative acts as prime minister, with a substantial injection of incompetence and confusion, she forced through her policy; it contributed significantly to her demise.
The damage is done, however, and the Sunak administration has been gifted the worst of all worlds. The voters in areas targeted for seismic action cannot trust the Tories to keep their promises on fracking, no matter how sincere Mr Sunak sounds. The energy industry, both fossil and renewable, is left with a development and pricing regime that they cannot rely on for the long term – the Conservatives are liable to change their minds, and Labour would reverse much of the policy framework they have created, such as it is.
The vast investments the energy companies have to make – especially in the nuclear sector – demand long-term security. A cross-party consensus on the future of energy would help, but it remains as distant a prospect as nuclear fusion or, for that matter, unrestricted fracking.