Written for The Telegraph
Just after midnight on September 23 2002, I was woken as my house shook and its windows rattled. There had been an earthquake – in London. Its epicentre was near Birmingham, where Edwina Currie happened to be broadcasting at the time: recordings show her reeling as the studio shook beneath her.
This was a natural earthquake; at magnitude 4.7, it was 500 times more powerful than the strongest micro-tremor caused by fracking for shale gas in the UK. Yet no major damage was reported.
A Liverpool University study shows that the subsequent magnitude limit on fracking tremors – 0.5 – is less than the “shock” caused by dropping a melon from waist height. Despite the scaremongering, more than a million shale wells have been drilled in North America without a single report of a building being destroyed by subsequent micro-seismic tremors. Nor has a single person been poisoned by contaminated aquifers.
Many industries create greater disturbance, and few can boast similar levels of safety. As Rishi Sunak has said, both the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering declared that fracking could be done safely: “Health, safety and environmental risks can be managed effectively.” He promised to permit it, where local residents approve.
So, why has the Government revived the ban? Our planned pathway to Net Zero assumes Britain will need some gas for the next 25 years. Our own reserves would offer security of supply, generate tax revenues, strengthen the pound and contribute to levelling up. Above all, it would be better for the environment than importing Liquefied Natural Gas, which emits four times as much carbon pre-use when liquefied, shipped and regasified.
The energy sources that can come on-stream fastest are onshore gas and onshore wind. Fracking companies believe they could supply gas within a year of permission to drill. The US achieved self-sufficiency in gas within six years by deploying fracking.
The PM’s promise to lift the fracking moratorium relied on local support. Unfortunately, wherever drilling is proposed, activists are parachuted in to wage scaremongering campaigns, causing disruption and traffic. Even residents who suspect the propaganda is nonsense have no reason to support fracking. Why run any risk that some of it might be true, and why waste time weighing up counterarguments?
But gas companies would willingly pay a cash sum to all local residents if the majority give permission to drill – followed by a large chunk off their gas bills if the well proves successful. People would not mindlessly accept the offer and ignore the alleged risks of fracking. But it would give them a reason to weigh the eco-warriors’ wild claims against hard evidence.
Most people would discover that the anti-fracking lobby’s scare stories are as baseless as those of the anti-vaxxers.
The Government may have shelved the plan to determine support via local referendums because they fear that even where communities allow drilling, energy firms would not invest before the next election, in case Labour win and reinstate the ban. Ministers may be reluctant to use up political capital taking on the eco-lobby if their victory will immediately be undermined.
The only hope of overcoming this problem would be for the Government to invite Labour in, to discuss issues such as national security concerns and how to assess local support – and ask shadow ministers to pledge to honour permits awarded before the election, if they win. It is just possible that Labour would consent, to display patriotism and distance themselves from militant eco-warriors. If not, they would stand condemned for sabotaging energy security, increasing emissions and overriding local decisions.
If, instead, the Conservative Government assumes all blame for stifling shale-gas development, they may well lose a slice of voters to the Faragist parties at the next election.