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