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Fracking because Russia

These days, simply uttering the word “Russia” or the name “Putin” is considered sufficient for all critical thought to go out of the window.  Unlike the rest of the world – upon whom we place a high burden of proof – British exceptionalism dictates that any official accusation or claim that includes some reference to Russia automatically becomes established fact, and anyone who seeks actual evidence is a traitor by default.

It is in this climate that Britain’s pro-fracking lobby has awakened from its slumber to pronounce that opposing UK fracking is nothing short of treason.  Ivan Fallon in The National, for example, informs us that:

“At the height of the North Sea oil boom in the 1980s, Britain’s energy industry accounted for 10 per cent of GDP, allowing then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to push through the most radical economic transformation since the Industrial Revolution.

“Today it is just 2 per cent and Britain, a net exporter of energy as recently as 2003, now imports almost half its needs.

“Much of that is in the form of Russian gas, which is not an entirely comfortable position to be in when you are engaged, as Thatcher’s successor Theresa May is, in a tit-for-tat battle with Moscow over the attempted assassination of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Imported Russian gas was the single biggest contributor to the country’s chronic trade imbalance last year, and if Russian President Putin were to turn the taps off there would be a real energy crisis.”

According to Fallon, it is not the lousy economics of fracking that have prevented it from taking off.  Rather it is an ill-informed public that has been subjected to a diet of Russian fake news about the true benefits of fracking:

“The problem up to now has been the fierce resistance from an uninformed public that is passionately convinced that fracking is the work of the devil and an even more serious threat to mankind than the Soviet nerve gas used on the Skripals…

“But we now know, what we didn’t then, that Russian disinformation and fake news was at least partly behind some of the wilder stories stories…”

There is just one tiny problem with Fallon’s statements… they are complete and utter **********.  We do not “know” that opposition to fracking is the result of Russian disinformation and fake news.  On the contrary, opposition to fracking came from a public alarmed by the impact of burning fossil fuels on an environment that is becoming increasingly inhospitable to human life.  Displaying a far greater grasp of the problem than most of the UK’s political leaders, those who oppose fracking see it for what it is – a temporary money making wheeze that will leave us in a worse position in the 2020s than if we had deployed the capital on energy efficiency and conservation.

Andrew Ward in the Financial Times offers a much simpler explanation of why fracking has failed to materialise in the UK:

“Many of the rosiest forecasts for gas production advanced by fracking supporters are based on a 2013 industry report which, echoing The Beatles, projected there would be 4,000 shale wells in the UK by 2032. A Freedom of Information request by Greenpeace, the environmental group, revealed in February that the UK government has a much lower expectation of just 155 by 2025.

“Even that could be a stretch based on current progress. Cuadrilla is only now getting back on track after a hiatus since it caused minor earth tremors while test fracking near Blackpool in 2011. Similar delays have beset other UK shale pioneers as weakness in gas prices has undermined their economics at the same time as grassroots opposition increased planning hurdles.”

It is worth noting that the “weakness in gas prices” that Ward refers to are the same prices that are now so eye-wateringly high that even a free-market Tory government has been obliged to introduce legislation to cap prices in future.  Another way of putting that is to note that for UK fracking to be profitable, gas prices would have to be high enough to plunge Britain into recession.  That, rather than the elderly ladies recently arrested for knitting outside Cuadrilla’s drill site in Lancashire, is why UK fracking is a non-starter.

Fallon’s claim that Britain will be dependent upon Russia for gas supplies in future is fake news of the highest order.  While it is true that the UK National Grid turned to (but did not actually use) liquefied natural gas from Russia after the Forties pipeline was closed in December, the idea that Britain is in any way beholden to Russia for its energy is simply wrong.  The vast bulk of the UK’s piped gas imports come from Norway, with smaller amounts piped in from Holland and Belgium, while almost all of our liquefied natural gas is imported from Qatar.  That said, the UK government claim that Russian gas accounts for just one percent of Britain’s imports is misleading, since a proportion of the gas imported via Belgium and Holland will be Russian gas piped into the pan-European network.

Could the Russians cause an energy crisis by turning off the gas taps?  Probably; provided we experienced a particularly harsh winter at a time when one or more of the pipelines and storage facilities we currently depend upon was down for maintenance.  Is fracking the answer to this?  Undoubtedly not; there is no – zero, ziltch – evidence that UK shale gas can be produced at a price the UK economy can afford.  The way to offset any energy security threat to the UK from Russia is, rather, on the demand side.

Britain is notorious for having some of the least energy efficient buildings in Europe.  In effect, the average British family spends a little shy of £500 per year warming the air outside their houses.  By retro-fitting relatively cheap insulation and cladding (for single skinned buildings) the Government and the energy companies could dramatically lower the UK’s current, growing, exposure to the vagaries of the international gas market.

It is here, however, that we discover who the real traitors are.  When David Cameron famously instructed his officials “cut the green crap,” he was referring to the scheme set up by the previous Labour government for the energy companies to insulate Britain’s least energy-efficient properties.  However, even Cameron’s cuts pale into insignificance compared to the cuts cynically slipped out by Theresa May on Good Friday while MPs were on holiday.  As Jillian Ambrose in the Telegraph explains:

“Under new plans ministers intend to slash the pace at which the least efficient households will receive insulation upgrades…

“The new energy efficiency proposals were published over the Easter weekend and set a target of insulating just 17,000 solid walled homes a year.

“It means it would take over 400 years to upgrade the 7 million remaining solid wall homes in Britain…”

Ambrose notes that while the cut saves a relatively small amount of public spending, it increases political pressure for further price caps.  Moreover, energy efficiency measures that save an average of £490 per year not only remove this pressure, but help to address climate policy and energy security issues.

If Russia really was the threat the UK government claims, energy efficiency, not fracking would be the way to go.  But then, Russia is probably not the threat the government says it is, and there is no money for the Tory Party’s friends in the City to be made from insulating the homes of the poor.

As you made it to the end…

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