Energy security and our climate are of crucial importance. They deserve a calm and rational debate
In her new role as shale gas commissioner, former Labour MP Natascha Engel is keen to establish the facts around fracking and encourage calm, rational debate
Friends, family members and former colleagues have all had a similar response when they hear that I have taken the job of shale commissioner. “Why on earth would you want to do that?”
Two years ago, when I was Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, a woman brought her young son to see me at surgery. She was crying because she had been told that her village would be fracked and the toxic fumes released would kill her child. She was only the first of many people who came with fears about cancer, earthquakes causing houses to collapse and gas poisoning drinking water.
Like many ex-mining areas, North East Derbyshire has always had more than its fair share of landfills and incinerators, so I was quite used to anger and even scare stories, but nothing like this. I assumed, like many people, that there must be something uniquely dangerous about fracking.
To find out more, I visited sites, spoke to engineers and geologists, protesters and regulators and came away even more confused: nothing in what I heard or saw said that fracking was anything other than a process to get gas out of the ground.
Added to that, the UK has a mature oil and gas industry that has employed hundreds of thousands of people, developed world-leading expertise, provided generations with energy security, and tax receipts that have helped fund our hospitals and schools.
So why has this one technique become so controversial that rational debate has become almost impossible?
While the local groups that oppose fracking may be small, the multinational lobbying organisations that back them are well-connected, wealthy and vast.
Their size and impressive campaigns aren’t the problem. My objection is that they are closing down an important debate on our energy security. Worst of all, they are silencing ordinary residents who just want to know a little bit more about fracking but are too scared to ask.
There are thousands of people who live near potential fracking sites, many in areas that last had an industry three generations ago. When I speak to them, they are more worried about the campaigners against fracking than they are about an onshore gas well.
When I asked one woman if she would go to a public meeting on fracking, she asked if there would be shouting. “I don’t like shouting,” she said.
That’s how simple it is to close down debate, by making it uncomfortable and a little bit frightening for the majority of ordinary people – people who live in semi-rural areas who need petrol to go to work, who want warm houses to return to, cook dinner on their gas hobs and watch a bit of TV before bed.
They want energy to keep them comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the environment. They care as much as anti-fracking campaigners. It’s just that their views aren’t sought when we try to work out how we get from where we are today to a cleaner and more sustainable future.
Last year, only 2.2% of our total energy consumption came from wind and 0.5% from solar. The fact that this isn’t part of our national debate on energy is a worrying sign of how closed down it has become. Wind turbines need coal to make their steel naves and plastics to make their blades. Even a 100% renewables future needs some fossil fuels.
The US has cut its carbon emissions by 10% over the last decade by supporting a shale oil and gas industry at the same time as investing in renewables and clean energy.
Germany, in contrast, invested all-out in wind without switching from coal to gas as a back-up. Over the same period, their emissions plateaued because they had to burn coal whenever the wind wasn’t blowing. By not having this debate in the UK we risk making the same mistake.
Energy security and our climate are among the most important questions facing us. They deserve a calm and rational debate that needs to go wider than a vocal environmental movement, and that ensures the voices of ordinary constituents are heard.