Opinion is certainly divided on the evils or otherwise of fracking and if anyone was going to be against it, you would expect that Ed Davey would be. As the UK energy secretary, Davey is responsible for creating the structure in which renewable energy will succeed and as a member of the Liberal Democrats, his entire party considers themselves to have a green agenda. So why on earth would he be backing fracking?
Fracking is the process by which oil and gas is extracted from deep within the earth by injecting water and chemicals at extremely high pressure. This is called fracturing and results in pockets of gas and oil being exposed and released. It has been banned in a number of countries because of the risk of water contamination, the small earthquakes which result from the process and the possibility of water shortages.
During an interview on BBC Radio Five as part of their Energy Day programming last week, Davey stated that fracking could mean jobs, tax revenue and energy security – all good things. He points out that fracking is still in the early exploratory days at present and that regulations need to be put in place to prevent methane emissions and pollution.
Davey states that if fracking is to go ahead it must be ensured that it will not hurt the environment and that gas is needed while the transition to low carbon energy is made over the next 20-30 years. He points out that gas in the north sea is reducing, importing gas is fraught with issues and that fracking may be the answer.
Renewable energy companies will be dismayed to hear that the government expects it to take 20-30 years before renewable energy is more mainstream and it seems clear that if fracking is allowed, this process will be substantially slowed. Considering that the government has EU emissions targets set for 2020, moving to sustainable energy methods must surely be a priority now, not later.
So why the turn-around from Davey? It is clear that he is receiving pressure from the Treasury regarding the costs of going green and latest legislation, such as the Energy Bill, set a clear path towards gas as the main form of energy for the UK. Either Ed Davey backs down and waters down his viewpoint or he risks looking weak when the inevitable happens. At least Davey has admitted (by not mentioning it) that fracking is unlikely to bring down the cost of our energy. He talks about jobs, energy security and taxation, but these are little comfort to the average UK consumer. If fracking doesn't result in lowered energy bills it is unlikely to receive the support of the country as a whole. If it isn't cheaper – then what is the point?
Davey may have done a u-turn, but at least he is a lone voice in the government who will still push for renewables when he can. He may just be limited in his success and need to back down in some areas to make gains in others.