Last week George Osborne’s climate-change sceptic father-in-law, the Tory Peer Lord Howell, gave us a typically measured Tory statement on shale gas. It was OK to extract it, provided it was not done in ‘sensitive’ Sussex, but in the ‘desolate’ North East. Amid the resulting outcry, he tried to rescue himself – at least from his geographical mistake. He claimed what he had really meant were the ‘desolate’ ‘unloved’ areas of the North West – though we should note there ARE plans for shale gas extraction in the North East. As someone remarked on Twitter – in a hole, he kept digging – and he would soon be deep enough to extract shale gas himself. Howell gave us a new hashtag on Twitter – for the non-Twitterati among you, a hashtag draws tweets on a theme together. #FracktheNorth looks set for a long life!
Insensitivity – yes. Lack of sympathy for the North – certainly. These were the sort of remarks which remind us just how isolated the Tories are – socially and geographically. But there’s more to his remarks than that. There’s an energy policy – or lack of one – which is wedded to gas at all costs, espoused by those who are either unconcerned about or skeptical of climate change, and in the face of mounting evidence of the need for diversity.
[Baroness] Bryony Worthington, Labour’s shadow energy and climate minister in the Lords, noted the ‘staggering’ ignorance he betrayed – and the justifiable fears of people likely to be affected by shale gas extraction.
“Lord Howell is George Osborne’s father in law, a well-known climate sceptic and enthusiastic gas advocate. He is clearly in a position to influence policy at the highest level but his comments show that Ministers would be extremely ill-advised to trust in his counsel. Not only is his geography questionable, the shale gas reserves are concentrated in the North West not the North East, but his lack of appreciation of beautiful and cherished environments north of the Watford gap is truly staggering.
“It is difficult to ascertain which came first, the Tory Party’s love of shale gas or their hatred of renewables. . . Both shale gas and renewables suffer from the same problem: individual wells and wind farms do not provide as dense and highly concentrated a source of energy as conventional mines, wells or nuclear power stations do. The result is potentially more people living close to the sources of the energy they consume.
“This potential levelling of the impacts of our energy consumption is unlikely to be quiet or easy. It may however, be vastly more successful if local people have a genuine stake in the proposed projects; whether solar panels on their roofs or community owned wind farms.”
She was, however, also clear about the wider implications of Howell’s remarks – namely this government’s indifference to climate change questions, its lack of an energy policy, and its clutching at gas – shale gas or other – as an apparently easy answer.
“In addition to the very real local concerns associated with extracting shale gas there is the added concern of the impact on climate change of fossil fuel extraction. People protesting at Balcombe should not be dismissed as mere ‘Nimbys’; they are also worried about the dangers of seeking to exploit unconventional fossil fuels at a time when there is more choice of cleaner sources of power.”
By contrast “Labour’s aim is to see a broad range of new technologies developed, maximising our natural advantages such as wind speeds and marine resources; but also our farming and forestry industries, our engineering excellence and the rich heritage of nuclear R&D. Certain factions in the government appear to have a much narrower vision: gas, gas and more gas.”
Those factions include George Osborne, with or without the advice of his geographically-challenged father-in-law. He has promised the most generous tax regime in the world for shale gas exploitation.
But as Bryony Worthington warned, there are no quick fixes in energy policy
‘It is widely accepted that the shale gas revolution in the US is unlikely to be repeated here. The government, and in particular the Chancellor, should snap out of whatever dream they’re living in and realise that the future of energy in the UK is going to be diverse. Mr Osborne and the companies and their representatives that he associates with (Lynton Crosby included) may not like it but the existing paradigm is about to be disrupted and there’s little they can do to stop it. Crossing fingers and hoping for a new source to replace the North Sea gas we have so quickly depleted is simply not going to work.”
So worst of all worlds – the North may be Fracked to no avail. But then, if you live within the Old Etonian southern bubble, that doesn’t really matter.