Labour’s fracking ban: prohibiting progress

Labour has announced that it would ban ‘fracking’ for shale gas if it wins power at the next General Election. The shadow environment secretary, Barry Gardiner, told the party’s annual conference in Liverpool: ‘Fracking locks us into an energy infrastructure that is based on fossil fuels long after our country needs to have moved to clean energy. So, today, I am announcing that a future Labour government will ban fracking.’

This pretty much sums up the constituency that Labour is now appealing to: public-sector lentil-munchers who don’t really like all this messy material-development malarkey. But how do they think we will keep the lights on for their beloved NHS? Do we face a future of yoghurt-knitting and homeopathy by candlelight?

Gardiner claims that a low-carbon future means more investment in renewable-energy technologies like wind and solar. ‘Britain is at the beginning of an incredible transformation of our energy system. The next Labour government will launch a new programme called “Repowering Britain” that puts you in control’, he said. This doesn’t just mean smart meters and domestic battles over the thermostat. It means more support for ‘community energy projects’. It’s local power for local people.

It’s one thing for local communities to get together to take advantage of energy subsidies to power their own homes when the wind blows or the sun shines. But it’s quite a different thing filling in the gaps in energy production created by intermittent renewables. Until cheap electricity storage becomes available on a massive scale, the only way to supplement gaps in energy production is with gas. So, if the UK isn’t producing gas of its own (supplies from the North Sea are dwindling fast), it’s going to buy it from elsewhere – with a choice of Russian gas from that nasty Mr Putin, undemocratic regimes in the Middle East or US gas produced by, wait for it… fracking. Such ironies aside, if the major concern is climate change, then it doesn’t really matter where we buy the gas from, it will still produce CO2 when we use it. So why not produce our own?

A low-carbon future (unless that means massive investment in nuclear) means a low-power future, too. It would be quite some achievement to meet the existing UK power demand through renewables, even with all the energy-saving initiatives under the sun. It would mean blighting our countryside and coastline with wind turbines, shipping in even more timber from the US to burn instead of coal, and crossing our fingers that the sun will occasionally shine. Renewables simply won’t be able to produce the abundant energy we need to transform our lives – certainly not in the lifetime of Gardiner and his colleagues.

In reality, even meeting our current needs with renewables looks almost impossible. The late Professor David MacKay, once chief scientific adviser to the now-defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change, told the Guardian in his final interview earlier this year: ‘There is this appalling delusion that people have that we can take this thing that is currently producing one per cent of our electricity and we can just scale it up and, if there is a slight issue of it not adding up, then we can just do energy efficiency. Humanity really does need to pay attention to arithmetic and the laws of physics – we need a plan that adds up.’ Taking MacKay’s advice, the Labour front bench should be first in line for a maths lesson.

Drilling for shale gas is far safer than many have been led to believe. Years of experience in the US have improved the process, and most of the claims about its dangers were nonsense in the first place. Labour’s new policy reflects the concerns of a narrow section of middle-class Britain, not the needs of society at large.

Rob Lyons is a spiked columnist.

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