THE BLOG

The Government Is Moving Mountains for Shale, In Defiance of the Science and of Public Feeling

26/01/2015 14:38 GMT | Updated 28/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Today, the SNP will join MPs from across the benches to call for a freeze on fracking.

The move backs a report, published today, from the Environmental Audit Committee (the EAC, of which I'm a member) to coincide with the final Commons stages of the Infrastructure Bill.

It urges MPs to press pause on the government's relentless shove for shale (and to amend some of the Bill's other awkward bits).

Like many very important Bills, you may not have heard of this one. It's a bumbling 180-page mass of impenetrable contradiction; hardly a bedside favourite. Which, of course, suits the government (and oil and gas firms keen to get fracking) just fine.

But debunk the waffle, and you're left with a blockbuster.

This is a dangerous Bill, as much for what it doesn't contain as what it does (it doesn't, for example, deign to consider clear air targets or energy efficiency, which would tackle the scandal of cold homes. But it does include a new "duty to maximise" the recovery of oil and gas - just when we're duty-bound to reduce it... )

As the government throws caution (and science, public opinion and taxpayer millions) to the wind on fracking, today's report calls on MPs to take stock before taking an irreversible plunge. Responding to the report, Professor Paul Ekins, Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, remarks that, "...in a country which prides itself on using evidence to inform decisions, it's strange that licensing and permissions and lightweight tax have been granted before the science has started."

Indeed.

Sections of this Bill have the power to drive Britain decades backwards. The international credibility of the UK in tackling climate change (says the report) is being critically weakened. And there's more at stake than our reputation.

The truth is, we still do not know enough about the potential health, societal and environmental impacts of fracking. The public's legitimate concerns have been rebuffed, the opinions and evidence of experts auto-refuted. The government's gone all-out to win hearts and minds on fracking - assuring robust regulation and economic benefits. The reality looks quite different.

Regulations are being stripped down and removed to keep companies sweet. In fact, as it stands, the industry would largely be left to regulate itself. Not good enough, says our report - regulation must be independent.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change predicts fracking could generate up to 32,000 jobs. But - despite government cuts - the renewables industry already supports more than 100,000 jobs. And a nationwide energy efficiency programme could create an additional 108,000 jobs every year between 2020 and 2030.

As it stands, a drilling company must seek owners' permission to drill under land. The Infrastructure Bill would demolish that duty - easing trespass laws to grant companies sweeping new powers (opposed by about 75% of the public) to frack beneath your home, without your consent. "On this issue," concludes the EAC report, "the public have spoken and the Government must listen."

And as it stands, the government has ensured that fracking is void of transparency. Indeed, Defra's Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts report was redacted to such an absurd degree as to render it useless. The EAC has requested an un-redacted copy.

Ultimately, not even the shiniest gold standard regulations can make fracking compatible with the UK's climate commitments.

The science is clear: to avoid catastrophic climate change, about 80% of our existing fossil fuel reserves must stay unburned.

But the Infrastructure Bill paves the way for a whole new fossil fuel industry.

It's commonly cited as a bridging fuel between (the more carbon intensive) coal and renewable technologies.

Except, any large scale extraction of shale gas in the UK is likely to be at least 10-15 years away. By that time, unabated coal-fired power generation will have been phased out anyway to meet EU air pollution directives, so fracking will be no substitute at all. The risk is that, instead of competing with coal, shale could be a dangerous distraction from investment in renewables and energy efficiency. Besides, it's unlikely to be commercially viable unless developed on a significant scale (which we don't know is even possible in the UK) - but that would exceed our carbon budgets.

Just because shale gas exists, doesn't mean we should use it. Certainly not when there are much better and more sustainable ways to keep the lights on.

The UK has some of the best renewable energy sources in Europe. Yet we are harnessing just a fraction of that potential. Energy bills are, for many, unaffordable, yet our homes are some of the least energy efficient.

We know how to change that, we have the technology and engineering capacity to do it, we can afford to do it. But we can't do it while making ourselves more dependent on fossil fuels.

The government is moving mountains for shale, in defiance of the science and of public feeling. And, aside from some minor tinkering, the Bill's big climate picture - or lack of - is backed by all main parties.

Today, it might finally get the debate it deserves.

The urgency of climate change calls for bold change and brave leadership. But this is no leap of faith. The science is clear and the alternatives available, and affordable.

Not so long ago, the Prime Minister spoke of his 'greenest government' ambitions. He said, and I quote, "We've got a real opportunity to drive the green economy, to have green jobs and make sure we have our share of the industries of the future."

Now, he's going "all out" for shale. It's a shame he's bottling it - but we don't have to follow suit.