The scandal of official reluctance to develop Britain’s shale gas potential is at last beginning to surface. It may prove to be the dress rehearsal for the ultimate drama — the inexorable collapse of our whole energy strategy.
Most of us have by now heard about the US shale gas revolution. In little more than six years, shale gas has reduced America’s gas prices to a third of what they are in Europe, increased huge tax revenues, rebalanced the economy, created tens of thousands of jobs, brought industry and manufacturing back to the country’s heartlands, and given rise to a real prospect of American energy self-sufficiency by 2030.
Britain may well have comparable shale resources. Indeed, the Bowman shale in Lancashire is a mile thick, whereas most US shale plays are just 300 to 500 feet thick — a strangely unpublicised piece of good news. If shale gas proves abundant it could help the government meet three key objectives: rebalancing the public finances by generating large tax revenues, rebalancing the economy by boosting manufacturing, and rebalancing the north/south divide by creating jobs and a whole new industry in the north.
We will only know for sure how much is there, and can be economically extracted, by drilling. So you might assume governments would be forcing the pace. Far from it. In 2011, the government imposed an 18-month moratorium. Since that ended, Cuadrilla — the only company which has drilled in the UK — has suffered further delays because of bizarre environmental obstacles. Department of Energy and Climate Change ministers have consistently talked down the industry’s prospects. When the British Geological Survey recently dramatically revised up their estimates of Britain’s shale potential, the department’s chiefs allegedly told them to redo the figures — further delaying the publication of their findings until the summer. There is still no date for the next licensing round to open up more acreage for drilling.