Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is a process which is used to extract shale gas from deep underground. The UK government today provided a significant fillip to thrusting frackers: whereas fifty percent of the business rates from shale gas extraction had previously gone to the Treasury, local councils which grant planning permission to frackers will now pocket everything. The British Geological Survey has estimated that over a thousand trillion cubic feet of shale gas awaits beneath the North of England, but we have not seen anything so far approaching the industrial mobilisation which is required to release it. The French oil giant Total has committed £12.7 million to exploratory drilling, out of an overall budget of £16.3 billion.
“Fracking” is not yet an established part of the Scottish political vocabulary. Energy policy is effectively a devolved matter, since the Holyrood parliament has the power to grant or refuse planning permission to new energy projects. The Scottish government has not explicitly declined to refuse fracking applications, as it has done with prospective nuclear development, but the lack of any fracking in this country demonstrates that the technology is not welcome here. Last October the Scottish “Climate Change Minister” Paul Wheelhouse rolled out stringent new conditions for the extraction of shale gas, including the creation of “buffer zones” between drilling sites and settlements.
The minister’s very terminology seems to betray an ignorance of what fracking entails. There is already a “buffer zone” between fracking and the community: namely the thousands of feet of subterranean rock which lie between the two. But I imagine that Wheelhouse’s “buffer zone” is more of an emotional comfort than anything to do with public safety or environmental health. Imagine if you could look out of your bedroom window and see an oil rig, completely ruining your view of the electricity pylons and wind turbines. It would be intolerable.
The ruling Scottish National Party are a sort of post political party, a vague liberal shape without any discernable ideological spine, and so there is nothing to obstruct them from backing fracking in the future. In England, the left-of-centre Liberal Democrats abandoned their opposition to fracking and nuclear power once they were in government. The SNP are presently allied with Scotland’s Green Party within the Yes campaign for Scottish independence. In the future, they may be freer to wound Green sensibilities.
At first, it may seem sensible for Scotland to keep out of fracking. Scotland enjoys far greater energy security than England, and so it can afford to watch and wait, and see how the nascent technology fares across the border. Scotland remains unmoved by fracking, so the story goes, because it has a low population and abundant North Sea oil and gas, rendering the nation a net exporter of energy. In contrast to England, which has a high demand for energy and a supply crisis, Scotland has achieved some security of supply and the demand is relatively modest. The SNP is also committed to ensuring that a hundred percent of Scotland’s energy consumption is generated from environmentally-virtuous renewables (winds and waves) by 2020. Over forty percent of domestic consumption was met by renewables during 2012.
Yet Scotland does not hope to meet these targets through an ambitious new investment in energy supply, but by conniving to suppress the demand. In 2012, the largest proportion of Scottish energy (34.4%) was actually generated by nuclear power, but the incoming renewables, whilst reducing environmental wear and tear, have no such plausibility as mass energy suppliers. Indeed, the wind providers received almost £900 million in subsidies during 2012, all of which was cheerfully added to domestic fuel bills. The government’s own 2012 report “Energy in Scotland” openly concedes that, “Many of the lowest-cost emissions reductions can be achieved by lowering excess demand for energy.” The same document boasts of its “headline target to reduce Scottish final energy consumption by 12% by 2020 from a 2005 to 2007 baseline.”
It is the poor who pay for this, mostly with their money and sometimes with their lives. During 2012, 7.1% of the country lived in “extreme fuel poverty,” in which 20% of a household’s income is spent on fuel. The Scottish House Condition Survey found that this was down 0.9% on 2011, which perhaps gives some indication of the death toll. Scottish Labour’s Jackie Baillie charged that, “Despite the small progress these figures show, because of the energy price hikes in 2013, we know that tens of thousands more Scottish households are in fuel poverty now than last year.”
Both the Scottish government and NGOs such as Energy Action Scotland greet the shortfall with promises of greater “home energy efficiency,” which is essentially a trendy variation upon telling people to wear more jumpers. The constantly reiterated message is that insulating people’s homes will bring down their bills to an affordable level, but this seems to be a hope rather than something which is mathematically costed or reliably funded. I do not wish to wander from my chosen path of slagging off Scotland’s substandard energy provision to start slagging off its substandard housing supply, but having only a fifth of our housing stock built over the last thirty years hardly helps.
The SNP’s happiness to see the poor freeze, so long as their own bigoted preference for renewables remains unchallenged, gives some indication of how determined they are to make other people suffer for the sake of a fashionable but daft idea. Heavens, perhaps their heart is in Scottish independence as well! Tychy’s attitude to energy provision is admittedly paradoxical, since as a Leftist I have no problem with the state intervening to deliver grand new energy projects. The Scottish disaster comes firstly from having no grand projects to begin with; and secondly from an open or else unstated hostility towards alternative technologies.
In the long term, Scotland emerges from this period of bigotry at an educational or even an intellectual disadvantage. If you are a young engineer who wants to float tidal turbines off the Orkney Islands, then the system will smile on you. If you want to build something more ambitious, but which does not reflect the renewables agenda, then Scotland is not for you. Just as Paul Wheelhouse dreamed of randomly erecting “buffer zones” between gas rigs and housing estates, Richard Yemm, the founder of Pelamis Wave Power, reassured Professional Engineering magazine in 2012 that “we’re working to a planning principle that was recommended to us, ‘banana’ – build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone. We’re out of sight and out of mind.” A country with invisible energy facilities is never going to bring down the price of gas for millions of people.
Tychy was scoffing at anti-fracking scaremongering back in 2011, when fracking was a dazzling supernatural force which could make water flammable and cause earthquakes. Admittedly, these were those special sorts of earthquake which do not actually cause the earth to quake. Lately fracking, like genetically-modified “Frankenfoods,” has lost some of its original sparkle. The Green MP Caroline Lucas was today on the World at One complaining that new gas rigs will generate increased volumes of road traffic. It is going to be hard to rouse a pseudo-medieval mob to riot against that.
It is unlikely that extracting massive quantities of shale gas will cause a resurgence in manufacturing and industry any time soon. Brad Plumer, writing last year in the Washington Post, noted that one of the two “areas were cheap shale gas could matter quite a bit” was in the manufacture of “hydraulic fracturing equipment” (the other was in the production of ethylene). Nonetheless, America’s ready supply of shale gas and China’s own massive coal reserves remain more attractive to industrialists than a Europe which is muddling through with closing nuclear power stations. Moreover, the impact of shale gas would be felt within Europe’s broader economy. Unless the energy companies are exporting all of the gas or fixing the prices (things which the state should intervene to prevent), an increase in supply will eventually bring down bills. American energy prices are now a third of those in Europe.
Ultimately Scotland must frack because it is genuinely unnerving to live in a modern country which is reluctant to use new technology to improve our lives. Last October no less a person than Lang Banks, the Scottish director of the World Wide Fund for Nature, argued that, “In the interests of tackling climate change and delivering climate justice we urgently need to be leaving fossil fuels, including shale gas, in the ground.” To me, such a sentiment is simply inhuman. To identify a resource which could make us all healthier and happier, and to then throw it away, cuts an invisible thread which leads us all the way back to the first common ancestor who was not afraid of fire.
[Depressingly, Murdo Fraser, the Tory MSP for Fife, seems to be the most vocal champion of fracking within Scottish politics.]