Davos tends to turn the hardest of heads. During the annual meetings, where businesses pay big bucks to rub shoulders with political leaders and thinkers, a contagious aura of smugness fills this Alpine valley like a fog, killing much sense of reality.
Politicians need a quick corridor story to sell their country’s virtues, and David Cameron has landed on a peculiarly ill-informed one. Most narratives are falsifiable only with the passage of time, but Cameron’s story is demonstrably a fairytale right now.
The Cameron song is that Britain is going to be “re-shoring” businesses – the opposite of offshoring – in part because of cheap gas as fracking takes off: prices will fall as they have in the US, where they are just a third of Europe’s prices. British consumers, whose bills will be halved, will doff their caps to Tory ministers who made possible this revolution of cheap energy. Grateful billionaires will come gambolling back to bring new business to Bradford and Bolton.
This is not a vision but a fantasy. Britain’s geology has not yet been proved as suitable for fracking. Poland underwent a frenzy of over-excited hype about its shale gas deposits, only to be cruelly disappointed by the detailed geology. The same may happen here.
Assume, however, that our shale deposits are frackable. The second problem is that we have eight times as many people per square mile as the US, and those pin-striped protesters in Balcombe, Sussex, are rather more likely to notice the lorry traffic needed to supply a big shale gas pad than the good folk of Oklahoma.
Those irate British nimbys, along with the green groups who want to leave fossil fuels in the ground, are quite capable of making life miserable for the shale prospectors. They have to get planning permission, and then face tricks such as buying up tiny strips of land and claiming trespass.
In the US you drive by signs saying “Top dollar paid for gas rights”. Companies can buy from residents who own the mineral rights under their own land. In the UK, mineral rights were nationalised during the first world war so people have little incentive to back exploration.