David Cameron’s government is upsetting the hippies in Britain:
Owen Paterson is far from a household name, but the significance of his appointment as Environment Secretary has not been lost on the green lobby groups. As far as theyâ€™re concerned, this is war. They are already denouncing him as a â€śprominent hater of wind turbinesâ€ť and overall climate change sceptic.
Sounds like a top bloke.
In the boom years, a green surcharge on a heating bill seemed like a small price to pay for environmental progress. But with living standards facing their worst squeeze for 80 years, and at least 20,000 pensioners dying of the cold each year, the cost of such green subsidies is now becoming intolerable. Especially since, as Paterson will know, their beneficiaries are often the rich â€“ to an extent that even appals the gentry. â€śWhen we toffs meet up, all we talk about is government grants,â€ť one landowner tells me. â€śI was even offered a grant for my folly. Itâ€™s all about who is getting what subsidy for which hydro plant.â€ť
Over recent years, a class of landowning welfare junkies has been created â€“ and the old environmental consensus left them immune from scrutiny. Many are impeccably connected (one has the Prime Minister as a son-in-law), and can take their money directly from Brussels. But there is still much an Environment Secretary can do to cut that cost.
Subsidies are like welfare. Welfare is like crack, junkies become addicted far too easily.
Perhaps the greatest single opportunity facing him, however, is shale gas exploitation. Geologists have known for decades about gas trapped in shale and other rock formations, but only in the past 20 years has technology existed that allows it to be captured. In America, hydraulic fracturing, or â€śfrackingâ€ť, has transformed the energy supply. Shale now provides a third of its gas, up from 2 per cent a decade ago. British companies now pay four times as much for gas as their American counterparts â€“ not something that global chemical companies can ignore when deciding where to build a new factory. Docks built to import gas into America are now exporting it.
This has been nothing short of an energy revolution, and it could well happen here. When 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas deposits were discovered in Lancashire last year â€“ enough to power Britain for 65 years â€“ it was without doubt the biggest energy find since North Sea oil in the Sixties. It says much about the hysterical nature of the British climate change debate, however, that this was almost entirely ignored.
The hippies oppose all progress.
Shale emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal, and is far cheaper to produce. The biggest deposits are in China, so passing fracking technology on to the Chinese could do more to reduce global carbon emissions than any airport runway ban. Yet the environmentalists have greeted shale with either complete silence, or outright hostility.
In economic terms, too, shale is a godsend for Cameron, just as North Sea oil was for Thatcher: it could well make Blackpool into the Dallas of the north, creating 5,000 jobs in an area that desperately needs them. But this gift horse is being sent packing, as if the Prime Minister wants to be left alone with his economic misery. Even as Northern Ireland Secretary, Paterson was saying in Cabinet that this was lunacy. Then, he was a lone voice. Now, he is in charge of the policy.
Britain might get somewhere now.
Part of the problem in developing shale is that the Environment Agency has inserted itself into the licensing process. It is taking between six and nine months to process drilling applications that should take a fortnight, at most. However, the quango answers to Paterson. He can not only nudge it along, but publish â€“ and trumpet â€“ the studies showing that fracking is both safe and viable. Early earth tremors, deep underground, have been judged to pose no safety risk.
Patersonâ€™s will be a lonely battle, because shale lacks anything resembling a proper lobbying group to make its case. It is up against three powerful enemies: Big Oil, Big Green and Big Government. Indeed, had it not come along, Britainâ€™s wind farm industry would have been in line for ÂŁ130 billion in subsidy over the coming years. Little wonder that its allies are so angry, both at shale and at Mr Patersonâ€™s appointment.
Always good upsetting hippies.