Matt Ridley: Shale Delay Empowers Putin

  • Date: 24/03/14
  • Matt Ridley, The Times

Fracking could have been a huge benefit, but at least there are signs that the Government is getting its act together

Suddenly energy security, rather than climate change, is dominating Europe’s energy agenda. At last week’s summit, the European Commission was told find a way, within three months, to cut dependence on Russian gas — and to put on hold targets for carbon dioxide emission reduction, which were due to be ready for a global summit in September in Paris. European governments are waking up to the fact that subsidising electricity from intermittent wind farms has failed to prevent a ballooning dependence on imports to keep our homes warm.

As William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, wrote yesterday, Europe now needs to invest in terminals and pipelines to import gas from places other than Russia, as well as develop home-grown shale gas. If only we had done so five years ago.

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that Europe had been on to shale gas before America. Imagine that in the 1990s, wildcat British drillers had gradually worked out how to “stimulate” the flow of gas out of shale, the rock that is the source of most natural gas; that by 2008 gas was flowing freely from fields in France, Poland and Lancashire; that by now the price of gas had collapsed to one third of its current level and we were busy building export terminals to ship our gas glut to the world while welcoming the chemical and manufacturing industry back from China and the Gulf.

That would have taken the smirk off Vladimir Putin’s face, would it not? His Russian gas would be struggling to find a market here and his rickety petro-regime would be teetering, rather than conquering.

It’s a ridiculous daydream, sure. Mad. But why exactly? Not for geological reasons: the Bowland shale in Lancashire is ten times thicker than some of America’s best fields and just as rich in gas. Not for want of expertise: the North Sea gave this country and continent lots of drilling skills. Not because of population density: the shale gas boom started in the outskirts of the city of Fort Worth. Not even because of mineral ownership differences: energy companies compensate landowners (myself included, in the case of coal) for access to nationalised hydrocarbons here too, and lots of shale gas development has been on state land in America. Not for lack of finance either: there’s risk-ready money in the City.

So what did stop us? Indeed, what’s stopping us now? We have allowed three exploratory wells into shale in five years. The Poles have allowed about 50. Ukraine had drilled a handful, but that’s off for now. When the Americans got going in the Marcellus shale in the northeast of the US a few years ago, they quickly ramped things up till they were drilling hundreds of wells a year.

Nor is public opinion to blame. Professor Sarah O’Hara of the University of Nottingham has been surveying the public about shale gas regularly and finds that more than twice as many people think its exploitation should be allowed in the UK as think it should not. The number who associate it with earthquakes and water contamination has been falling, while most people realise it will reduce rather increase carbon dioxide emissions. The anti-frackers who have glued, concreted and chained themselves to machinery and infrastructure to slow down the drilling are not getting their message across.

It’s the greens in suits, rather than kaftans, that have done the most to stop the shale gas revolution here, by demanding that all drillers jump through gold-plated regulatory hoops. Their goal, they freely admit in private, is not to ban fracking but to delay it to commercial death.

Full comment (subscription required)