Simon Fell is the MP for Barrow and Furness.
I welcomed the Government’s effective ban on fracking just before I was elected as the MP for Barrow and Furness two years ago.
I have always urged the Government to keep local safety and environmental concerns at the forefront of its decision-making when it comes to the extraction of shale gas.
Viewing the challenges caused by wholesale gas prices rocketing these past few weeks, I’m as sure as ever that fracking is not the solution and believe the Government should resist calls to change its policy.
Let’s not forget that the sole reason why the moratorium was put in place is because the Oil & Gas Authority – the independent regulator – found it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking.
In other words, fracking to extract shale gas just isn’t safe. This has been echoed multiple times recently by the Business Secretary, citing the “shaking walls” and “falling plates” after fracking in Lancashire.
It is also worth remembering that, shortly before the Government’s moratorium on fracking was announced, the companies involved were asking the Government for earthquake limits to be relaxed to make fracking more commercially viable.
So fracking fell at the first hurdle – safety. But there are others it would have to clear if we were to begin scaling it up.
The second hurdle is popularity, and the simple fact is that fracking is deeply unpopular. It drives down house prices, brings more heavy traffic which country roads can’t handle, and pollutes the natural environment. The views of local communities should come first, and they overwhelmingly oppose fracking.
This is a crucial point, because fracking is often depicted as an industry which would scale up in the Bowland-Hodder and Midland Valley areas (i.e. in the North of England and Scotland). But the Weald basin – which stretches across the bottom half of South-East England – would also be opened up to exploration if we were to change the current rules to suit the fracking industry.
It’s extremely doubtful that Conservative MPs and their voters in the South would stand for this. New Conservative heartlands in the North shouldn’t be expected to either.
In Barrow and Furness at least, this opposition certainly isn’t due to ‘energy NIMBYism’. I’ve joined countless other Conservative MPs in supporting more renewable and nuclear energy investment in our constituencies. That’s because, with clean energy, there’s much more public support and a much stronger business case.
Even if the Government were to ignore public opinion, face-down a Conservative backlash, relax our regulatory and planning frameworks, abandon a manifesto pledge, and undermine Net Zero, one of its core domestic and foreign policy agendas, there is still the issue that the economics of fracking do not add up.
First, what sense is there in pivoting towards unpopular, uncertain, unsafe fracking just as the clean energy revolution is gathering pace around the world?
Solar and wind enjoy strong public backing, including among Conservative voters, and are the cheapest new electricity sources available to us. The solutions to wind lulls or cloudy days exist – whether battery storage, interconnectors to Europe, or clean hydrogen. They just need scaling up.
Given the North West’s existing expertise and supply chains in nuclear energy, why would anyone call for investment to be diverted from new nuclear to shale gas extraction?
It’s very doubtful that the American shale gas boom in the late noughties is something that could ever be repeated in the UK. Even if we could overcome all the local democracy challenges that prevented fracking when the Government was committed to exploiting our shale gas reserves, shale gas would not be able to meet a meaningful share of UK gas demand over the next decade to have a meaningful impact on prices.
It’s also worth remembering the National Audit Office’s finding that, since gas is a globally traded commodity, UK gas prices inevitably reflect those in Europe. It would require an impossibly large influx of fracked gas to make a dent on European prices and therefore to cut British households’ gas bills.
During the next decade, more and more private investment will continue to surge in the direction of renewables, as has been the trend for a number of years. The opportunity costs would be staggering if the UK opted now to invest in a declining industry right as the global transition to clean energy picks up pace. The truth is that, even before you turn to the environmental damage it causes, fracking’s time has been and gone.
Fracking is a non-starter for a legion of reasons. The Business Secretary is right to reject calls to start this debate all over again when there are more important and urgent decisions to be made to tackle the challenges we face now. The only way to protect consumers from the price of natural gas is to invest in clean energy and energy efficiency as quickly as possible.