Britain’s Energy Crisis Is About To Boil Over
Shale gas can power our future, but not if we get bogged down in battles over trespass
Does an activity taking place hundreds of feet below your home constitute a trespass? Resolving this question could well decide the future of this country’s energy supply. Landowners in West Sussex intend to deny permission for shale oil and gas exploration in order to establish what campaigners hope will turn into a nationwide “legal blockade” against fracking. They hope to tie up the drilling companies in so much litigation that they will give up and go elsewhere.
The Government, meanwhile, is considering clarifying the trespass law in favour of the drillers, who need to sink their shafts vertically for hundreds or even thousands of feet and then out horizontally, often for more than a mile. A bit like a coal mine, in other words. And just as coal underpinned Britain’s industrial past, so shale has the potential to power its future –but only if we are able to exploit it. If years of legal battles loom before a single shale well can be opened, then we will be in serious trouble.
How serious is gradually becoming apparent. Last week, I spoke to Fatih Birol, chief economist at the International Energy Authority (IEA), who is often described as the world’s leading forecaster in this field. He has been telling anyone in Europe willing to listen that the continent faces a major crisis of competitiveness because of high energy prices. “This year is critical,” he told me. “I don’t see many such junctures in the economic history of Europe in which energy could play such a critical role for the long-term prosperity of the European people.”
The problems are these. Europe’s high subsidies for renewables to meet climate change targets, coupled with the switch to gas, which is expensive to import, are damaging energy-intensive manufacturers, who between them employ some 30 million people. Nuclear power has either been blocked, as in Germany, or delayed, as in the UK, and the take-up of shale has been painfully slow. In America, by contrast, the shale revolution has seen energy prices tumble, making industry more profitable and putting extra money into the pockets of consumers – so far, $1,300 a year for every American, expected to rise to $4,000 by 2015.
The head of one of Europe’s biggest energy companies told a conference I attended recently that the EU’s energy policy was a “total mess”. He added: “Not only are we unable to attract investment to create new jobs, but we risk losing them as well.” He proposed a moratorium on the targets for cutting EU carbon emissions by 20 per cent of 1990 values by 2020. “The EU is responsible for 15 per cent of global CO2 emissions. So a 20 per cent cut of that makes a total global cut of 3 per cent – and that is not a real cut either. We face an emergency and we need to understand that this commitment without considering the cost to consumers and industry was a mistake.”
An opportunity to rethink this approach will come next month at an EU summit devoted to energy, and there are indications that an element of flexibility is being introduced into the carbon targets for 2030. But the crisis is more immediate than that; and there is no sign of a fundamental rethink yet.