Between 1980 and 2005, the UK produced more energy than it needed. Today, we import more than a third of our energy and over half of our natural gas. Households are facing an increase in their annual tax bills from £1,500 to an eye-watering £3,000. While the Business Secretary may have tweeted this week that the current situation is a matter of high prices rather than security of supply, families already struggling to heat their homes are unlikely to tell the difference as they decide whether to heat their homes or pay for food.
This was never a foregone conclusion. A decade ago, the US shale gas revolution was well underway, with fracking creating hundreds of thousands of jobs and driving down gas prices. Household energy spending in America has fallen by around 15 per cent during the last ten years, even while helping drive a 20 per cent reduction in energy-related emissions over the past two decades.
And it appeared the UK was on the cusp of a similar transformation. In 2013, 58 per cent of the public supported fracking (though fewer than half surveyed knew what it was and many associated it with the risk of earthquakes). At the same time, the British Geological Survey was estimating that the Bowland, a thick seam of shale across Lancashire and Yorkshire, could alone yield up to 13,000 billion cubic metres of natural gas. If just 10 per cent of this had been extracted from the ground, it could have heated homes for half a century.
But, as we now know, in 2013 we were at the zenith rather than the foothills of our own fracking revolution. Had we developed our reserves of shale oil and gas, it’s possible we would not only be self-sufficient in energy but exporting it to the rest of Europe. Had we not killed our shale industry at birth, the British public would not only be funding more of our own priorities (including low carbon investment), we wouldn't be fuelling the Russian war machine. Even if assumptions around capacity were found to be exaggerated, the fact remains that every molecule of gas drilled and taxed here is one not being imported from abroad.
There is now an anti-fracking consensus in Britain and the last operational site closed in 2019. It was announced last month that Cuadrilla would be permanently abandoning its shale gas wells in Lancashire. A mix of net zero ideologues, naive Nimby’s and renewable energy promoters — often gullibly latching on to Putin’s anti-fracking propaganda — worked tirelessly to stop renewed gas extraction in its tracks. Proponents of the ‘leave it in the ground’ mentality organised protests, stoked public hostility, and made it near-impossible for politicians to reconcile fears with reality.
In 2019, Greenpeace posted a blog titled 'all those times the anti-fracking campaign rocked'. Examples included actress Emma Thompson — the one who flew 5,400 miles to attend an Extinction Rebellion rally — hosting a baking contest in protest. In another, the anti-fracking 'nanas' of Lancashire took to the streets to 'explain why fracking is senseless'. Friends of the Earth was instructed by the Advertising Standards Authority in 2016 to withdraw misleading claims about shale gas, such as that fracking caused cancer.
But experience in America had showed gas could be captured without any risk of polluting the groundwater that would sit hundreds of metres above. The Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society has reviewed the scientific and engineering evidence on shale gas and concluded the risks could be ‘managed effectively in the UK as long as operational best practices are implemented and enforced through regulation’. And a group of Conservative MPs warned at the weekend that fracking was ended in Britain on a ‘false pretext’.
A report commissioned by a UK regulator described some of the tremors used to justify the moratorium on shale gas exploration in Britain as 'almost imperceptible'. Normal industrial activities from tunnelling to mining to conventional drilling can produce vibrations measuring 2-4 on the Richter scale. In a display of craven caution, the UK threshold for pausing activity was 0.5.
At the start of the year, it already appeared the rush to net zero would send household bills soaring. Years of meddling in the energy market, ignoring the reality that we won’t be independent of oil and gas for some years to come, and refusing to accept the unreliability of renewables is a problem, and was coming at a high price, especially for the poorest, for whom energy bills make up a significantly larger chunk of their household bills than the wealthy.
But few expected the obsession with net zero would make it easier for Vladimir Putin to risk an invasion of Ukraine. As MPs have warned, war was made possible because Europe is, to quote the Prime Minister, ‘addicted to Russian gas’.
The British public appears to want a climate-friendly energy policy, lower fuel prices and no fracking. It can't have all three. The time is quickly arriving where they will have to decide which one they are willing to jettison.