15 March 2022

Frack for freedom! Britain has the resources to get off Russian gas


The crisis in Ukraine has highlighted the dangers of over-reliance on Russia, and the advantages of national self-sufficiency in energy supplies. In post-Brexit Britain, this is entirely achievable, given our natural resources.

The Government’s announcement that they will phase out Russian imports of oil and gas by the end of the year was welcome. However, it does not hide the fact that consumers, already set to face significant hikes in their bills from the start of April, will now experience even greater price rises. Soaring fuel prices have joined eye-watering household energy bills. No price cap on commercial contracts means businesses – particularly manufacturing – are badly impacted, adding to the kind of inflation we have not seen since the 1970s. Never mind the ‘climate emergency’, there is a much more immediate energy emergency.

Were there no alternatives to our current energy supplies, the situation would be beyond our control. This, however, is simply not the case.

In light of the current situation, the Independent Business Network of family businesses, which I chair, is calling for the Government to overturn the decision to abandon fracking.

Much of the thought process behind the move by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to order fracking firm Cuadrilla to shut its drilling sites in Lancashire stems from the Government’s Net Zero target. It also follows years of protests from Nimbyist green campaigners, citing the threat of earthquakes, despite the OGA finding it was not currently possible to predict the probability of such tremors.

The goal of achieving Net Zero by 2050 is laudable. However, the current approach of placing vastly expensive green subsidies on unreliable renewables is a waste of money we cannot afford. It risks plunging taxpayers into fuel poverty, and it’s a threat to our national security too.

If we were to extract just 10% of the potential supply of British natural shale gas through fracking, the UK could be energy self-sufficient for the next 30 years. This would go a long way towards easing the pressure on consumers’ bank accounts and business costs, and it would provide a low cost bridge for Britain while we develop nuclear and other supplies of clean energy.

Ensuring these supplies is vital. It is not just consumers for whom we need to ensure energy costs are kept low. Without action, the rising costs facing businesses will reduce their capacity to grow at a time when British industry, finally free from EU regulatory burdens, should be surging ahead. Energy hungry manufacturing is vital to any success the Government’s much vaunted levelling up plan, and we need to do all we can to support it.

Of course, as well as support for returning to fracking, there is opposition. Many say that we are far less dependent on Russian energy supplies than our European neighbours, and that the additional supplies of gas fracking would provide would have hardly any impact on gas prices in Britain.

Yet, the risks of our dependence on foreign imports of gas, not just from Russia but across the world, have been brought into sharp relief by the conflict. The rise in prices has highlighted the importance of reducing our dependence on foreign production by taking three key steps.

The first step we must take is to reopen Lancashire’s fracking wells and expand exploration. The British Geological Survey identified key areas for British natural shale gas exploration in the north-west and south of England, and the Midland Valley in Scotland, and further potential fracking must also be considered. News last month that North Yorkshire County Council had rejected calls to ban fracking was very much welcome.

The second step we must take is to improve our gas storage infrastructure. Data from Gas Infrastructure Europe show our gas storage capacity is less than half of that of Spain and Poland, and just 10% of Italy’s capacity. This leaves us far more vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of gas compared to those countries.

Thirdly, consideration must be given to securing the supply for the UK in the first instance, by operating a quota system on a contracted cost plus basis, with supplies going elsewhere at world market prices only once domestic demand has been satisfied. To encourage development the cost plus can be generous, given that gas prices in North America, where fracking is commonplace, are a fraction of those in the UK.

We need to be frank and realise that energy independence cannot be achieved by sources such as wind power alone. As well as fracking for British natural shale gas, we must embrace nuclear energy, both through current nuclear technology, and through the potential of mini reactors. Recent breakthrough research at Oxford’s JET Laboratory into nuclear fusion produced as much energy in five seconds as the capacity of an onshore wind turbine. While something for the future, it must be captured for the UK economy, not given away for free as with so many other historic, British technological breakthroughs which are then commercialised by others.

Taking those steps will set us down the path towards being truly energy independent. This is a far greater priority for the Government than continuing to pursue an economically ruinous Net Zero project. We must be able to maintain energy supplies that are both plentiful and do not leave families needing to choose between heating and eating.

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John Longworth is Chairman of the Independent Business Network of family businesses, an entrepreneur and businessman. He was formerly DG of the British Chambers of Commerce and a Conservative MEP.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.