Fracking: cognitive dissonance on an industrial scale

How long can the Government push clean and dirty energy at the same time?

Banging on about oil and gas when you’re supposed to be talking about low-carbon energy is like talking about the wonders of lard when you’re meant to be getting people to eat more greens.

The Government brought out its long-awaited Industrial Strategy earlier this week – all 250 pages of it. It contained just one teeny tiny, rather apologetic, bit about shale gas, which we are told (again) has the prospect” of creating jobs”. Then it quickly goes on to talk about something else. Quite right too, because the chapter in which it sits is not supposed to be about fossil fuels, but clean growth”.

This lumping together of dirty stuff with clean stuff can seem very odd. Ministers are quite capable of bringing out things like its recent, pretty decent Clean Growth Strategy, with lots of coherent stuff about the social and economic imperative to cut carbon and lots of ideas how to do so. Yet with a totally separate, apparently estranged, part of its brain, the Budget can merrily cut taxes for North Sea oil and gas drilling – again – and the Government can continue to sneak approving references to fracking into places where they simply do not belong.

You’d think the cognitive dissonance would at least give Ministers a headache. Maybe it does. But comforting semantic gymnastics are at work. You see, the UK’s Climate Change Act only obliges the Government to think about energy used in the UK. We have a legal target to cut emissions from energy used by the UK economy by 80% on 1990 levels. Due to the way this was historically accounted for under the Kyoto Protocol, it doesn’t cover other emissions – like those caused by other countries making the things that go into the products that we import.

And nor does it extend to the stuff we wrench out of the ground. Ministers are on record [see Q54, for example] as seeing the two as totally separate: fossil fuels are global commodities, thus any oil and gas we extract just sloshes into global markets, having an indiscernible impact on whether it’s any cheaper to use oil and gas in the UK.

We meet the letter of our carbon targets, while merrily kicking the spirit in the teeth.

Cake both had and eaten: feel warm and happy with selves about burning less carbon within our borders, whilst deliberately keeping places like Aberdeen dangerously propped up by the oil and gas it flogs to the rest of the world. We meet the letter of our carbon targets, while merrily kicking the spirit in the teeth. So despite climate targets, the crusade for fracking from Westminster can continue – even as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland turn their backs on shale, choosing a more joined-up definition of what leadership on climate change really means.

In recent months however it’s seemed that even the Government has started to preach less loudly from its shale gas soapbox. As it should: the whole thing is desperately unpopular. The measly mention of shale in the industrial strategy smells like just the latest whiff of public retreat:

  • Alongside its recent Clean Growth Strategy’, the Government released new analysis admitting that shale gas isn’t needed for Britain’s energy security – rather undermining its claims for years that it, er, is.
  • Conservative backbenchers are increasingly rebelling on the issue, as local uproar grows among communities at risk.
  • James Heappey – the Conservative MP tasked with looking afresh at the party’s energy policy – thinks that the case for shale is looking shakier all the time.

But it’s far too early to hammer nails into any coffins just yet. Not banging on about fracking is not the same thing as no longer being determined to force it through, particularly if the love oil and gas’ bit of your brain is still alive and kicking. There have after all been years of tax break after community bribe after planning support thrown in the direction of the industry.

The sad reality is that after six years of stubborn resistance from local communities, the prospect of a UK fracking company actually doing some fracking has edged ever closer. Permission from the Government is expected any day now for test fracking at Kirby Misperton in Yorkshire. Perhaps the Government thinks it has done all it needs to do to bang the drum for the industry in public. Its yes or no for fracking at Kirby Misperton will be an acid test of whether the Government has cooled on fracking after all, and whether it is prepared to trample over local democracy to force rigs on communities that have flat out rejected them.

But even if that does happen, fury in the face of fracking isn’t going away. Around the country, ordinary homeowners, farmers, and residents will continue to say no’ to the prospect of being fracked, and the strength of evidence and opposition marshalled will – rightly – persuade councils to reject the plans.

Outrage and condemnation has followed INEOS’s stark announcement a week ago that it thinks local councils are taking too long to process the sheer volume of local evidence and objection to their plans, and is asking the Government to bypass local decision making entirely. We wait to see what happens next, but residents of places like Eckington are set to redouble their campaigning efforts.

Deep-pocketed fracking companies will have to keep on trying to push their fight over the heads of those councils, because the only possible way they’ll get widespread permission for their plans is if the troublesome multitudes of local people who fear the changing of their lives forever are removed from the equation.

If the Government bows to INEOS’s bolshie demands, it wouldn’t just be an affront to the very concept of democracy. It would also be proof – in a decarbonising, climate-changing world, even as it talks big on a clean’ industrial strategy – that it retains a very misguided sense of which horse to back.

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