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Questions That Should Be Keeping Ed Davey Awake at Night

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Do Ministers lie awake at night worrying about the decisions they have to take? You would hope so, given the impact of what they decide.

Ed Davey will soon announce if Cuadrilla can resume fracking for shale gas in Lancashire, which was suspended last year after it triggered earthquakes. Whether or not to allow fracking was described earlier this year by one commentator as 'arguably the most pressing environmental decision' the Government faces. It's not just about earthquakes, but about whether the UK stays hooked on expensive, climate-wrecking fossil fuels.

Mr Davey says he hopes to give the green light to fracking: but, as he lies awake in the early hours, imagine what questions will be racing through his mind?

Top of his mind will be whether shale gas will make it harder for us to meet our climate targets? The potential for shale gas is helping underpin the Chancellor's dash for gas, which his advisors in the Committee on Climate Change say is incompatible with our climate targets. And exploiting shale gas worldwide would put us on course for a global temperature rise way above that which the UK has said we must keep under to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Following from this is what impact shale gas will have on renewable energy? Experts such as Chatham House believe that if the shale gas revolution fails to deliver the promised cheap gas, it could be too late to build up renewables quickly enough to tackle climate change.

This sets him thinking about whether shale gas really will be cheap and cut household energy bills as the industry claims. But Mr Davey recalls the words of his former Energy Minster Charles Hendry that 'betting the farm on shale gas brings serious risks of future price rises'.

This turns his train of thought to Mr Hendy's former Parliamentary Private Secretary Mark Menzies, Tory MP for Fylde where Cuadrilla is active, who has understandably taken a close interest in fracking. The European Commission has said fracking poses high risks of water contamination and air pollution, and there is evidence of these problems in the US. The official line is that UK regulation will address this, but Mr Menzies has said the regulations are not robust enough to inspire confidence. Mr Davey remembers that this view is echoed by professional body the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management. They are also concerned about the many millions of gallons of water needed for fracking, and whether this water use conflicts with the need to maintain a healthy environment.

Going downstairs to make himself a camomile tea, Mr Davey tries to console himself that shale gas will improve our energy security (but his department's view is that it's too early to say) and that it will create thousands of jobs (but experience from other countries shows industry claims are often over-stated, other parts of the local economy such as agriculture can suffer and tourism bodies are worried and investing in renewables creates more jobs for the same money).

Sipping his tea, Mr Davey groans as he recalls the Prime Minister's promise of 'deep consultation with local communities' before decisions are taken about shale gas production. How will the Government square this with proposals from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to move decision-making on shale gas production away from local councils to the national Planning Inspectorate? The groundswell of anger from local communities as they see democracy potentially bypassed will mean more sleepless nights.

Giving up on more rest, Mr Davey fires off an email from his smartphone ordering one of his officials to call colleagues in other countries that morning to see how they are dealing with the issue. But as he does this, he remembers that many other countries are being more cautious. France and Bulgaria have banned fracking, and there are moratoriums in Holland, Austria, the Czech Republic, parts of Germany and some US states.

Then as day breaks, he realises that he's been looking at this the wrong way. There is an answer. He'll get the green NGOs and renewable industry experts in. He'll ask them to explain again why clean British energy, based on reducing energy waste and supporting renewable energy, will meet the UK's power needs, get us off climate-changing fossil fuels, cut bills and keep the lights on.

Now there's a good idea - if only he could persuade the Chancellor....