by Tim Farron Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale and former Lib Dem president
In the Liberal Democrats, it’s not the leader who sets policy, it’s the membership. But I reckon it’s not unreasonable for leadership candidates to set out their own views, and to call for a rethink where they believe the party’s got it wrong on any particular policy. And I think we have got it wrong on fracking.
We fought the election on a platform of cautious support for fracking, that it should go ahead subject to strict regulation. Fair enough – that’s what conference voted for in 2013. But I’ve been sceptical about fracking ever since I started to read the evidence. Earlier this year, I was one of 52 MPs (13 of them Lib Dems) to vote for an amendment in the Infrastructure Bill which would have placed a moratorium on fracking.
I’d like the party to debate whether we should support a ban on fracking. Most of the public debate has been around the potential impacts on health and the local environment. Back in March a number of doctors and health charities raised concerns over the likely increase in the incidence of cancer, birth defects and lung disease from air pollution and water contamination resulting from fracking. Scotland, Wales and New York state in the US have all banned fracking because of the potential health impacts – and England has a higher population density than any of those, meaning that more people will be near each fracking site.
Worrying as that is, though, I think there are even more compelling reasons to oppose fracking. For me, the most important is the way in which it will slow down the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy. It’s true that in the US fracking has contributed to a significant fall in emissions, as shale gas has replaced coal in power generation. But the US fracking industry started to operate on a commercial scale more than thirty years ago, whereas all we have in the UK so far is exploratory drilling.
So it’s reasonable to assume that any large-scale extraction of shale gas over here is a minimum of ten to fifteen years away (as the Environmental Audit Committee concluded in January). By then we should have phased out coal stations almost entirely in order to meet EU air quality and industrial emissions directives – so fracking will not contribute at all to replacing coal in power generation. And if we’re to meet the UK’s Climate Change Act objectives, we’ll need to decarbonise power generation almost entirely by 2030. If these targets mean anything, we shouldn’t be planning to use significant volumes of gas for power at all, regardless of its source.
Proponents of fracking argue that, since we use gas for heating as well as power, it’s better to use British gas than imported gas – more tax revenue, employment, and a lower carbon footprint than imported gas.
But this ignores the adverse impacts on technological development. By 2030 power generation should be very low-carbon; it’s the least difficult sector in which to cut carbon emissions. Yet we can’t even remotely reach the UK’s 80 per cent greenhouse gas emissions reduction target from the power sector alone. The next sectors to tackle are transport and heating (we’ll also have to deal with emissions from industry, land use and aviation, but they’re even more difficult). There’s a range of technologies currently available for low-carbon heat, including solar thermal panels, biomass boilers, heat pumps and feeding biogas into the gas grid. Currently, none of them are yet available at scale, and need more time for development and commercialisation.
Given the right incentives and policy framework, industry will develop the technologies, just as they are doing now with renewable electricity. But is industry likely to invest in this if they know there are likely to be increasing amounts of gas coming on to the system just as they should be deploying the new low-carbon heat technologies at scale? No they won’t – forcing government to provide more expensive incentives for the development and uptake of low-carbon heat. Where does that leave UK shale gas? Should we export it? And to where? Our EU neighbours, and other major economies, will equally be decarbonising.
Shale gas will only have a future in the UK if we abandon, or significantly scale back, our climate targets – and that’s something that I hope every Liberal Democrat would oppose. I wish I could say the same about the Tories, but I’d be surprised if we don’t see them beginning to talk down the UK’s climate objectives.
At the same time, Tory language is casting doubt over the whole direction of energy policy. George Osborne’s enthusiasm for fracking, their plans to allow fracking in National Parks, ending subsidies for onshore wind….with this background, it’s not surprising if renewable developers and investors are being highly cautious – so already the market is turning away from low-carbon heat, with serious implications for our ability to meet our climate goals.
I am sure that our Lib Dem members will have their own views – but it seems to me not just right but urgent that now, in this new political landscape, we rethink our approach.
Tim Farron is the Lib Dem MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale, and is standing to be the next leader of the Liberal Democrat party