UK debate over pros and cons of fracking will echo in Ireland
LONDON LETTER:Battles over wind farms may be just the prelude to more bitter conflict as fracking spreads, writes MARK HENNESSY
LIBERAL DEMOCRATS delegates grabbed coats and scarves as they made their way, heads bowed, along Brighton’s promenade for their party’s conference this week in the face of howling winds and rain, as an unseasonal winter gale battered England’s south coast.
Despite being preoccupied with their own political survival, delegates had time to consider the UK’s future energy needs, as climate-change pressures clash with the world’s insatiable demand for energy, mostly fossil.
For some, the stores of shale gas lying deep underneath parts of Britain are the solution – with exploration of the Bowland basin in Lancashire the most advanced – with some of the most optimistic but questioned estimates putting the potential supplies at 40 trillion cubic feet, enough to supply gas needs for years.
However, Liberal Democrats energy secretary Ed Davey is less than a fan, judging by his remarks during a number of fringe events at the conference. Every time he appeared doubtful, cautioning against hopes that shale gas is the revolution its promoters promise.
Opinion about energy is divided in the British cabinet. The Conservatives, despite past exhortations to “vote blue, go green”, favour gas over all forms of renewables, with chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne increasingly concerned that focusing on renewables will scupper plans to get economic growth.
Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Owen Paterson, now running environment after this month’s reshuffle, enthusiastically backs exploiting shale gas reserves – though green campaigners point endlessly to his scepticism about the influence of man on climate change.
The Lancashire explorations are, in any event, the warm-up act, since far larger deposits of shale gas exist across Sussex and Hampshire and in a line from Cambridge through Oxford and on to Bath, passing close by prime minister David Cameron’s Witney constituency, as it happens.
Licences for the Conservative-leaning Cotswolds, where inhabitants are already bridling at the plans to build a high-speed railway to Leeds and Manchester, are already up for auction, while others are up for grabs in Somerset – a Liberal Democrat heartland.
One of the proposed drilling sites in Sussex lies just metres from the London-Brighton railway line. In time, the battle in such areas that is already under way over wind farms may be just the prelude to far more bitter confrontations, as fracking spreads outside of Lancashire.
Davey, not Paterson, will have to decide if the Lancashire test drillings – which were suspended last year after minor earthquakes caused by exploration company Cuadrilla’s “fracking” woke locals and caused minor damage – can resume, though the expectation is that permission will be granted.