In May this year, academics from Washington State University published research confirming a long-held suspicion: being loud and confident is a more effective way to win an argument than being right. The researchers assiduously mined their data from more than a billion Tweets, but a quick look at the increasingly polarised debate about shale gas in the UK might have saved them some time.
For a significant number of climate-sceptic Tories and rightwing commentators, shale is a silver bullet. The hapless energy secretary Ed Davey has been sidelined by George Osborne, who appears to be setting energy policy on the advice of his father-in-law, Lord Howell.
The intervention of Boris Johnson last week has, I suspect, more to with his desire to be on side with discontented Tory MPs than any real appreciation of energy policy. His description of gas as “clean” and “green” was both crowd-pleasing and simply wrong.
But taken together with George Osborne’s statements about “cheap” gas, the chancellor’s conference speech trumpeting tax breaks for the industry and the energy minister’s pledge to make it “easier” for fracking to happen, Boris’ comments form part of a Tory campaign to present shale gas as an abundant, immediately available, cheap source of energy that solves all of our problems. By simplistically extrapolating from the experience of the USA, they have created a false prospectus about a controversial technology instead of providing the rational, evidence-led debate that is required.
Against that backdrop, it is not altogether surprising that the legitimate environmental concerns of those living in the vicinity of potential exploration and extraction sites have been seized upon by some of those who have a fundamental objection to the use of any fossil fuels in our energy mix. Anti-gas campaigners make claims about earthquakes and water contamination, drawing on early experiences in the USA to suggest that a wrecked landscape is the inevitable consequence of fracking.
In reality, many of these concerns are a reflection of the dangers of under-regulation. This is why in March 2012, as Labour energy spokesman, I set out six clear regulatory conditions that should be met prior to any extraction taking place. Robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring are the pre-requisites in addressing those legitimate and deeply-held concerns while also, as former UK scientific adviser Sir David King put it, laying to rest the “big scares” of earthquakes and water contamination.
Shale gas alone is not the answer – but neither is renewable energy