Howell's of protest

BryonyW4x3.jpgBryony Worthington on a wake-up call for George Osborne and his climate change sceptic father-in-law 

The House of Lords broke for summer recess yesterday and did so by hitting the headlines. A topical question tabled by Lord Harries of Pentregarth on the on-going anti-fracking protests in Balcombe, elicited an almost unimagineably ill-considered comment from Lord Howell of Guildford. After admitting that fracking in the UK was likely to encounter some justified opposition from local residents, he went on to suggest that the government should concentrate their efforts on the ‘desolate’ North East of England.

Lord Howell is George Osborne’s father in law, a well-known climate sceptic and enthusiastic gas advocate. He is clearly in a position to influence policy at the highest level but his comments show that Ministers would be extremely ill-advised to trust in his counsel. Not only is his geography questionable, the shale gas reserves are concentrated in the North West not the North East, but his lack of appreciation of beautiful and cherished environments north of the Watford gap is truly staggering.

It is difficult to ascertain which came first, the Tory Party’s love of shale gas or their hatred of renewables. It is of course much easier to love a concept that has yet to arrive on our doorsteps, than it is to carefully manage a process of transition. Both shale gas and renewables suffer from the same problem: individual wells and wind farms do not provide as dense and highly concentrated a source of energy as conventional mines, wells or nuclear power stations do. The result is potentially more people living close to the sources of the energy they consume.

This potential levelling of the impacts of our energy consumption is unlikely to be quiet or easy. It may however, be vastly more successful if local people have a genuine stake in the proposed projects; whether solar panels on their roofs or community owned wind farms.

A later question in the same Lords debate yesterday suggested the Minister should read up on the early days of the coal industry, which was similarly beset by local opposition. This is unlikely to help however, as in addition to the very real local concerns associated with extracting shale gas there is the added concern of the impact on climate change of fossil fuel extraction. People protesting at Balcombe should not be dismissed as mere ‘Nimbys’; they are also worried about the dangers of seeking to exploit unconventional fossil fuels at a time when there is more choice of cleaner sources of power.

Labour’s aim is to see a broad range of new technologies developed, maximising our natural advantages such as wind speeds and marine resources; but also our farming and forestry industries, our engineering excellence and the rich heritage of nuclear R&D. Certain factions in the government appear to have a much narrower vision: gas, gas and more gas.

It is widely accepted that the shale gas revolution in the US is unlikely to be repeated here. The government, and in particular the Chancellor, should snap out of whatever dream they’re living in and realise that the future of energy in the UK is going to be diverse. Mr Osborne and the companies and their representatives that he associates with (Lynton Crosby included) may not like it but the existing paradigm is about to be disrupted and there’s little they can do to stop it. Crossing fingers and hoping for a new source to replace the North Sea gas we have so quickly depleted is simply not going to work.

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords

Published 31st July 2013

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