David Cameron has become fracking’s biggest cheerleader
This post first appeared on The Guardian.
Any new technology has a short honeymoon period where its attractions loom large before practicalities intervene to burst the bubble and a more realistic picture of its costs and benefits emerges. I should know, I helped to raise expectations about the future of UK wave power in the early 2000s. Our hope that large wave farms would be up and running within the decade proved distinctly optimistic.
But most politicians develop an instinctive reflex against technological optimism, understanding the power of events and uncertainty to change the future. But there has been no such caution from the prime minister over shale gas. The government were already bullish about exploration, but David Cameron has chosen to become the industry’s biggest cheerleader. He hasn’t asked us to keep an open mind, he’s been determined to “win the debate” so that the public “get behind fracking”.
Will Cameron’s fracking evangelism win him votes?
It reminds me of Tony Blair’s unsuccessful attempt in 1999 to convince the British public to accept GM food, but looking back at his statements they were far more balanced than those Cameron has been making. Blair admitted the “jury was still out” on GM, which remains the case 15 years on. Cameron brokers no doubts and states: “If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills”. So that’s absolutely categorical then. You can start reducing your energy company direct debit now.
Why would he do this? Zoe Williams, writing in the Guardian last week, suggested that electioneering has led to this fracking evangelism, but will it really win Conservative votes? Its proponents don’t expect shale gas to be in production by the election, so there is no prospect of it impacting on energy bills in 2015. The fact that many exploration sites are in Conservative voting shires, and that 30% of the British public are already opposed to fracking suggests that the prime minister will need extraordinary powers of persuasion to make this a vote winner.
The allure of a ‘white heat’ vision
So he must be motivated by something greater than electoral calculation. My suspicion is that it’s the allure of being responsible for unleashing a disruptive technology with the potential for big economic and political impact. Prime ministers can lose their healthy scepticism after a few years at the top. Weighed down by the inertia of Whitehall, and isolated from real life they become susceptible to ‘white heat’ visions that appeal to the desire to be remembered as successful reformers.
These technology visions are rarely successful, but they do have an impact. Tony Blair didn’t break the public’s hostility to GM food, but he did delay the point at which he personally engaged with environmental security. He didn’t succeed in achieving a nuclear renaissance either, but he did ensure that nuclear power was put back on the agenda.
Have Conservatives lost their appetite for low carbon energy?
The opportunity costs of Cameron’s fracking push are much more economically significant. He may be right that the shale industry will become significant in the UK, but he has also signalled that the much bigger and more immediate investment the UK is making in renewable energy matters less. Low carbon energy and transport make up 70 per cent of the UK’s infrastructure investment pipeline, but David Cameron has not made a public speech on the benefits of decarbonising the UK energy system or the case for tackling climate change in his three years as prime minister. Investors have noticed, and are interpreting fracking fever as a further sign that the Conservatives have lost their appetite for low carbon energy.
Labour and the Lib Dems need to be making the case for decarbonisation
There are Conservatives working hard to re-establish the party’s narrative on the green economy, but the PM’s reticence to make the case publicly means that it is unlikely that the party will find its green voice again before the election. This means that the onus is now on Labour and the Lib Dems to consolidate the centre ground on climate change and reassert the economic and social case for decarbonisation.
This doesn’t mean that they have to promise a moratorium on fracking, but it does require them to chart a more evidential route to testing its benefits, and to remind the public that we have much bigger fish to fry. It’s their opportunity to champion the investment and jobs in the growing cleantech sector, and to pitch an ambitious programme that really would reduce energy bills by helping more people insulate their homes and switch to better appliances.
The PM has made a surprising choice to champion fracking above renewable energy investment. A shale gas revolution clearly excites him more than the modernisation and decarbonisation of our energy system. But his vision of shale gas as a game changer for the UK economy is vulnerable to the realities of geology, public opinion and markets, and is unlikely to pay political dividends.
See also Julian Morgan’s post yesterday on the effect of shale gas exploration on UK manufacturing.