No one could accuse UK prime minister David Cameron of taking his job too seriously. A few weeks after he and his fellow lighthearted leaders in Washington and Brussels had baited resource-rich Russia into a lukewarm conflict over Ukraine, he told the press assembled after this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague that he thought ‘something positive should come out of [the Ukraine crisis] for Europe which is to take a long hard look at its energy resilience, and its energy independence’.
Having identified this silver lining to the cloud of chaos unleashed in eastern Europe, Cameron warmed to his theme. It was ‘our duty’, he said, to be more energy-independent, and central to this project was hydraulic fracturing – or fracking as it’s better known. The process of extracting, in this case, shale gas, may be the subject of ‘worries and concerns’, he said, but ensuring our ‘energy security’ amid, for instance, the bickering with Russia, is a ‘tier one’ political issue. In this regard, he was only reiterating what energy minister Michael Fallon had told the Telegraph earlier this year: ‘[The crisis in Ukraine] is a wake-up call to Europe of the need to develop more energy sources of all kinds. We can’t be more and more dependent on imports from unstable regions.’
Energy security. Energy resilience. ‘Tier one’ political issue. It’s inspiring stuff and no mistake. Aspiring policy wonks across the UK must be swooning as they hear Cameron and pals drop these jargon-tastic Westminster floor fillers.
Sadly, for the rest of us, there is something profoundly dispiriting here, not just in the blithe way the EU-inspired mess in Ukraine is casually dismissed, but in the downbeat approach to the issue of fracking, and energy more broadly. What’s consistently striking about the contemporary energy discussion is that there is no really positive case being made here for expanding our energy supply, no attempt to say why producing more energy would improve our lives or expand the horizons of society. Instead, the case being made by the leader of the Tory party, which is nominally the most pro-fracking of all the major parties, is couched in terms of risks and threats. What if Russia ramps up the prices on its gas and oil exports? What if the conflict in Ukraine and newly annexed Crimea leads to disruption of oil and gas supplies? What if terrorists or state agents sabotage the supply lines? On and on the fearful ‘what ifs’ go.
This is typical of the way in which the debate about energy is conducted today. The prospect of having to expand society’s energy supply is marked by trepidation, not enthusiasm or resolve. It is not the potential benefits of a new energy source that fall from the mouths of politicians; it’s the risks and uncertainties it might entail. As a recent academic report into the potential for fracking in the UK felt the need to warn: ‘There were unknowns we couldn’t get to the bottom of.’ Threats, you see, proliferate in the policymaking imagination. We’re told to worry about energy sources in unstable regions of the world; we’re told to be concerned about accidents, be they fracking-prompted earthquakes or nuclear disasters; and we’re told, above all, to think of the environment, and to be very afraid of climate change.