At last night's Spectator debate, the audience voted dramatically in favour of the motion Let’s Get Fracking! Despite impassioned speeches from Green party leader Natalie Bennett, Greenpeace’s Joss Garman, and Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth, the crowd sided with Conservative MPs Peter Lilley and John Redwood and the energy consultant Nick Grealy, who said that it’s time for Britain to ‘peek into this Pandora’s box’ and at least explore the possibilities of shale gas.
Peter Lilley opened the debate with a joke at Chris Huhne’s expense: ‘in my view he should have been jailed not for driving too fast but for driving the development of shale gas too slowly’. He went on to assure the audience that fracking-related fears are ‘concocted’, and provided some entertaining examples. The force of an earthquake caused by fracking was, he said, ‘about the sort of shock you get when a lorry passes your house’. This analogy was sorely received by some environmental protestors in the audience.
Joss Garman countered Lilley by pointing towards the environmental and financial damages that shale gas exploration has caused. He said it was futile to use the North American example to illustrate the advantages of fracking, because of Britain's geology and geography. Garman then proved himself to be a man of the people, declaring the issue to be ‘about local consent’. The activists in the front rows cheered.
The green glee was short-lived, however, as John Redwood soon wrested the debate back in favour of the motion. Like Lilley, he argued that job creation, increased tax revenue, lower energy prices are the main arguments in favour of fracking. He also said that he too was greatly concerned about damaging the British countryside but that strict planning regulation and modern technology can ensure that gas and oil drilling is done relatively discreetly. He pointed to the example of the Wytch Farm oil field in Dorset, which seemed to win the audience round.
Craig Bennett and Natalie Bennett (no relation) accepted that Britain is in the middle of an energy crisis, but insisted that alternatives to shale — such as insulation, off-shore wind and tidal energy — were much preferable. Natalie invited the unsympathetic audience to ‘feel the cold’ outside and consider the anti-shale protestors camping at Barton Moss. Nobody seemed quite sure how this amounted to an argument against fracking.
Nick Grealy rejected the environmentalists. ‘The greens don’t get this,’ he said, ‘natural gas is more expensive because of the success of people like Joss in preventing it from being set up. Shale gas is not to be feared, it is the best solution for the climate that we have’.
Following a heated question and answer session, the chairman, Andrew Neil, ended the debate by observing how unusual it was to hear two Conservative MPs argue in favour of more regulation and more taxation. ‘I am going to have to lie down in a darkened room,’ he said. But the Tories had swayed the audience: the motion was carried by 112 votes to 38.