“Stop backing the wrong horse” Norman Baker urges government over energy policy

Norman Baker delivered a comprehensive rebuttal of government policy over shale oil and gas extraction this week in a special debate at Westminster Hall. He contrasted statements from the Chancellor and Treasury that there is “huge potential from fracking” and that this potential is “too big to ignore” with research from the UK Energy Research Centre. He quoted Professor Jim Watson, an author of a recent UKERC report as saying: “It is very frustrating to keep hearing that shale gas is going to solve our energy problems. There is no evidence for that whatsoever. It’s hype.” He also quoted Watson’s colleague, Professor Mike Bradshaw: “Shale gas has been completely oversold. Where ministers got this rhetoric from I’ve absolutely no idea. It is very misleading for the public. Only one thing is virtually certain: in Europe shale gas is not going to be a game changer.”

He also quoted the Tyndall Research Centre that shale gas in the UK is quantitatively and unambiguously incompatible with the UK’s commitment to remaining below 2°C of global warming. He continued: “If we end up with a massive shale gas industry which the government has suggested is maybe the case we are building in reliance to fossil fuels to a large degree for an indefinite period of time.”

“If on the other hand the shale gas reserves are not very large at all as I believe they may not be then we are spending a lot of money and time on something that doesn’t produce very much at all. Either way it doesn’t make very much sense.”

When queried about current UK reliance on gas Baker distinguished between shale gas and that obtained by more traditional methods, citing in particular the dangers posed by methane: “US studies have shown up to 9% of methane can escape into the atmosphere and over a 20 year timeline methane can be 86 times more powerful greenhouse gas-wise than carbon and therefore there’s a real danger that far from being something that actually aids us in terms of reducing emissions, shale gas – if not controlled properly – could actually be as bad as coal.” He went on to call for independent analysis to establish what the levels of methane leakage actually are.

He quoted the extensive concerns of organisations such as The Countryside Alliance, The National Farmers’ Union, The RSPB and The National Trust. Raising concerns over The Infrastructure Bill, its permission to “pass any substance through or putting any substance into deep level land” and “its granting of the right to leave deep level land in a different condition from that before including by leaving any infrastructure or substance in the land”, he stated “this doesn’t seem to me, if I may say so, to represent a world class regulatory regime proposal.”

In relation to concerns over the high volumes of water needed for the fracking process, Baker referred to the statement by a local water company that there is less water per head of population in this constituency than there is in the Sudan.

He also quoted Michael Hill’s article in The Lancet from earlier this year: “Although the UK Government has indeed stated that it accepts the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering Working Group’s recommendations on shale gas extraction, the reality is that only one of these recommendations has been implemented in full; one out of ten in two years.”

Citing an article in October’s Independent which stated that dangerously high levels of cancer causing chemicals have been discovered around fracking sites in the US he asked energy minister Matthew Hancock whether he could convince the House that the domestic regulatory regime is much tighter than in the US. He questioned whether the reality – in particular relating to the Infrastructure Bill – echoes the rhetoric of our having the “safest regulation on fracking in the world.”

Baker went on: “there is an alternative energy strategy available which gives security, which produces efforts to reduce climate change successfully, which produces jobs to invest further in renewables – this is a horse I’d like the minister to back.”

He added that while the climate change argument should speak for itself in terms of security of energy supplies, renewable energy “is all ours and is endless by its nature. We have immense potential for wind, solar, hydro, wave and tidal power in this country.” He also cited the Foreign Secretary’s statement that: “Renewable energy sources will be critical to reducing our vulnerability to energy supply shocks.”

He concluded: “I would advise the minister to stop backing the wrong horse and back the right one: renewables. I think shale has been over-hyped, those are the words also of the Energy Research Centre and it could be damaging rather than helpful to our country. Energy security, climate change and jobs are helped by [putting] more money in renewables instead of the concentration on fracking.”

A round-up of comments during the debate from other MP’s can be found here.

A recording and transcript of the debate are also available.

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