Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Will Labour learn to love fracking?

Now that the political summer break is finally over there is the opportunity for some healthy debate in the run-up to the TUC and political conferences.

Nowhere is this needed more than in the vexed issue of energy. To read the newspapers in the last few months it seems that the entire debate has been dominated by a fashion parade of eco-warriors in the sleepy Sussex village of Balcombe. The local Labour party congratulated the anti-fracking protesters on their ‘noble struggle’. But the time will soon come when Labour as a party will have to come to a position on fracking.

The discussion around the potential for shale gas in the UK is filled with intense debate and usually totally dominated by environmental considerations.  So let’s try and link the discussion with some wider issues of concern to most voters

Fuel poverty. Anyone who has canvassed recently knows that rising fuel bills are a concern to many families, and, the lower the family income, the greater the concern. On some estimates household fuel bills are likely to increase by another 50 per cent in the next five years and much of this will be accounted for by subsidising different forms of renewable energy. In that context any political party, and Labour especially, has to take more seriously the potential for shale gas to reduce domestic fuel bills. It is simply foolish to ignore completely the experience in the US where shale gas has seen a massive reduction in the costs of all energy benefitting both domestic and industrial users.

Employment. Shale gas exploration is a highly technical process but the opportunity to create thousands of direct and indirect jobs certainly exists. You only have to look at the experience of North Sea oil and its impact on the city of Aberdeen to understand the long-term economic and employment implications of the successful exploration of new sources of energy. Many of these jobs are well paid and highly skilled. Just the sort of jobs that trades unions and the party want and know are needed. Moreover, a significant reduction in energy costs has enormous implications for our manufacturing sector and its ability to compete and create the balanced national economy we do urgently need.

Security of supply. You don’t need to believe all the scare stories of the ‘lights going out in 2015’ to accept that the UK is facing major issues in meeting energy supply in the near future. Our European Union and international treaty obligations mean we have to decommission most of our coal-burning fire stations and our nuclear capacity is limited and likely to be extremely expensive. Everyone, including the Green party knows that gas is going to be a major element of our energy supply for the foreseeable future. Yet, bizarrely, the heroine of Balcombe Caroline Lucas is on record as preferring imported gas (almost certainly from Russia with its admirable human rights record) than any development of the immense shale gas reserves in the UK. There are ambitious plans to exploit solar power from the Sahara desert that could supply much of Europe’s energy but these are in their infancy and of no use in the near future.

I make no claims to be an energy expert but as a Labour member and activist I do want my party to take the issue much more seriously that it has to date. Yes, there are major environmental concerns about the development of shale gas. But there are with any fossil fuel, and, unless we want to have power cuts and see energy bills double in the next five years, we have to rely on gas – the real debate is whether that gas is imported or is developed here. Also you have to very naive not to realise that much of the anti-fracking propaganda is funded by rival energy companies especially in the United States.

Sadly, in the current near-hysterical climate it is difficult to see how a mature debate on shale gas can be achieved. But there are some hopeful signs. Several trades unions including the GMB are beginning to realise that it is foolish to dismiss the potential for jobs both directly and indirectly from the development of shale gas in the UK. The Local Government Association as the voice of local councils has indicated, quite rightly, that there must be a better deal for local communities and council from the commercial, organisations and is researching overseas precedents as part of its negotiation strategy. So we now need the parliamentary Labour party to enter the debate.

One final observation. I am old enough to remember the development of North Sea gas and oil and indeed played my part in the 1970s by helping to lay some of the many miles of pipeline that brought it onshore. There were environmental concerns and protests but these concerns were addressed and a successful industry developed. The tragedy for Labour was that the proceeds were thrown away by a Conservative government in the 1980s and 1990s on unemployment benefit rather than developing a sovereign wealth fund along the lines of Norway. As a general election approaches let’s not make the same mistake twice.

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Paul Wheeler has been a member of the Labour party for 40 years and writes on local politics

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Photo: Push Europe

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Paul Wheeler

is the founder of the Political Skills Forum

9 comments

  • The arguments put here for fracking would apply just as well, and even more so, to renewables and that would have the additional advantage of being, er, renewable. Fracking is not a good idea.

  • Unfortunately the arguments don’t apply to renewables, mainly because there’s no evidence anywhere that renewables are viable in the absence of massive subsidies – which cost both the taxpayer and energy customers. Furthermore, they are unreliable because of their intermittent nature, necessitating additional investment in backup plant.
    I’ve never seen any projection of when any of these technologies will become genuinely economically viable. Whereas we know that fracking is commercially successful in the US and has contributed to a revival in manufacturing industry. I agree with the author that this is precisely what we should be aiming for here.

  • Long-term renewables are the only option as we will run out of fossil fuel at some point and the economic argument becomes irrelevant once there are none left. I think it would be better if we took the renewable route sooner rather than later. The “intermittent nature” applies to all generation as anybody who has ever worked at any sort of power station can tell you (I have). The US example is not remotely comparable because we have other gas sources; besides, if fracking is so good why is their economy doing little better than ours? Add in the climate change problem and fracking for gas is clearly not any sort of solution.

  • As the article states I am in favour of renewable sources of energy. However wind, sun and wave in the UK cannot supply all of our energy demands for at least 20 years. So unless we as a party want to go in elections asking people not to use any energy for six months every year we will have to use gas. The only real question is whether we importnitbat huge cost from Qatar and Russia as the Green Party want or develop our own domestic supplies with considerable economic benefit.

  • Good man, Paul, a Labour voice on the issue of fracking is long overdue. Let’s not forget that there is virtually no part of the British landscape that can be described as ‘natural’. It has been almost entirely created by humankind. All those verdant fields and thorny hedgerows. No, we planted all that. You only need to drive down a south Wales former mining valley and think ‘I thought there used to be a mine here’ to know that the impact of an industry on a landscape can be almost entirely reversed. At the end of the day though, if it is a toss-up between keeping a Green Party Balcombe ‘luvvie’ happy or being in hock to that queer-basher Putin, I know where I stand…

  • I don’t buy the economic argument for one moment, that is ar argument used by the arms industry etc. Just because it is work does not mean it is good. A better option would be to put people to work insulating homes and installing green energy sources. Yes we’ll need to continue to use some gas (and coal, which is much cheaper by the way) and there is nothing wrong with importing that or in importing electricity from France.

  • Mathew if you don’t buy the economic argument just think of the issues around security of supply. Last winter the UK came within hours of power cuts because of a shortage of available energy and this will become worse over the next few years with the closure of coal fired power stations to meet our EU and international treaty obligations. Do you really want the first years of a Labour government to be over-shadowed by a reliance on gas supplies from Putin’s Russia?

  • The simple fact is that as energy demand increases and traditional fossil fuels deplete we are going to have to take a multi-channel approach to solving what will fast become one of the major problems this planet faces.
    Of course everyone wants to see huge steps taken in developing renewable technology, and similarly no one would argue that energy efficiency should be improved, but the fact remains we are going to be reliant on fossil fuels at least in the near future.
    Research and development on shale gas has to be part of our energy strategy, without it we will never get to a position that we can be totally reliant on renewables.
    It seems to me only parties of perpetual opposition can ever say a perpetual ‘no’ to fracking, and we all know where that leads to.

  • The planned closure of coal, nuclear and gas plants over the next few years is offset by the increase in renewables, see Ofgem’s Electricity Capacity Assessment Report 2013 for details. Our reliance on gas is not changing so we’ll be no more in hock to Putin than we are now. Also there are other ways to keep the lights on such as importing more electricity and managing demand by the high users. If you want to frack because you don’t like Putin, well, it’s an argument but not one I’d support.

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