Tory leadership contender and Prime Ministerial hopeful, Rory Stewart, distanced himself from mainstream Conservative positions on energy and said the country should not expand fracking because it needs to set an example to the world on cutting emissions. He added that he would prefer to invest in renewables and nuclear was hugely expensive, providing a huge leg up to environmentalist in the country. Mr Stewart, the International Development Secretary and former junior minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs under David Cameron, said that he wants to create a level playing field in terms of subsidies for renewable energy projects by supporting onshore wind farms.
Mr Stewart’s insurgent campaign has unsettled rivals scrambling for second place and is reportedly being placed the second favourite to become the next prime minister, as he is currently riding a surge of support after his appearance in a TV meet-the-press event on Sunday night. Theresa May’s deputy, David Lidington, came out last night for Mr Stewart, and he has become a genuine contender to reach a head-to-head against Boris Johnson. Stewart has taken a pro-environment position and has said the amount of United Kingdom foreign aid spent on tackling climate change should be doubled to over £2 billion.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is more commonly known, is a technique designed to recover gas and oil from shale rock by injecting liquid and materials at high pressure to create small fractures within tight shale formations. This allows the gas to come out to the top of the well and then the gas and oil are safely extracted from shale rock. Fracking is a proven drilling technology used for extracting oil, natural gas, geothermal energy, or water from deep underground and the industry suggests trillions of cubic feet of shale gas may be extracted from underneath parts of the United Kingdom through fracking.
Conservative ministers have been outspoken in their support for fracking, but the process has been hugely controversial, not least because of environmental concerns. The Tory party’s manifesto at the last general election committed to supporting shale exploration as it believed shale gas has the potential to provide the UK with higher jobs, growth and energy security. Several ministers have said it has the potential to create new jobs, as well as help lower bills and it could be an essential part of the transition to a low carbon future. Acting Prime Minister had praised shale gas extraction for its impact on future energy security, while her predecessor David Cameron was also a supporter of fracking.
However, Labour has said it would ban fracking if it wins the next general election and described shale gas as a dirty fossil fuel which should be banned, not promoted. Environmental concerns regarding the process, which has revolutionised the energy industry in the United States, has prompted protests, as fracking uses enormous amounts of water, which must be transported to the site at a significant environmental cost. Campaigners say encouragement for the process is distracting energy firms and governments from investing in renewable sources and groundwater around the fracking site might be contaminated by harmful chemicals which escape during drilling. While defenders of fracking contend that it is necessary for the UK’s energy security, campaigners argue that the UK already benefits from highly diverse and flexible sources of gas supply.
Rory Stewart told a newspaper that as the country pushes for global leadership on decarbonising, it should set the right example at home and it is not the right time to be expanding fracking activities in the country. He added that the presence of the resource is reassuring, but it does not help the country in its plan to decarbonise. It must be noted that the country recently announced its plans to set a net-zero emissions target by 2050, becoming the first G7 country to do so.
Jeremy Hunt, Foreign Secretary and another contender to become the Prime Minister, extended his support for fracking but said he would scrutinize the next steps, taking a more cautious approach than previous prime ministers. However, Dominic Raab, former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who was reported last week to be using an office owned by a fracking tycoon despite trying to prove his green credentials, said that he supported shale gas as it could increase energy security and bring down prices.
The Conservative party fought the 2015 general elections pledging to enact legislative changes to ensure that local people have the final say on new onshore wind farms project applications and end any new public subsidy for the sector, as these farms have often been opposed by grassroots Tories, despite it being the cheapest new power source. After their election victory, the government changed planning rules and barred onshore wind developers from competing against offshore projects for contracts that guarantee them a fixed price for the energy they produce. Rory Stewart said that it doesn’t make sense to put turbines in precious landscapes, but it was more of a question of applying the right technology at the right place. While Mr Raab said that large scale onshore wind power is not right for the country, Mr Hunt extended his support to the onshore wind where local people consented.
As the British government has not made its decision regarding support for new nuclear power plants, the nuclear industry is in limbo pending further clarification. Last year, a proposed project in Cumbria, which is near the constituency of Mr Stewart, was discarded after Toshiba announced it was winding up the unit behind the project. This left a massive hole in the energy policy of the government and represented a significant blow to its ambitions of the revival of the UK nuclear energy industry.
Mr Stewart held a cautionary stance towards the industry and said that while the power stations came with risks and were expensive, the nuclear power had contributed to clean energy. He further added that in order to drastically reduce the cost of renewable technologies, more research and development must be supported. While Mr Hunt said that he supported new nuclear when it was cost-effective, Mr Raab said the industry was a vital part of the mix.
After Cuadrilla Resources, one of the companies leading the charge to exploit Britain’s shale resources, caused earth tremors near Blackpool last year, fracking stopped in the country. The company received permission in July to begin fracking in Lancashire but had to pause its activity within a few days of initiating after a tremor exceeded the red light limit permitted by its operating license. Under existing regulatory norms, operators in the United Kingdom need to halt fracking operations if an earthquake of magnitude 0.5 or above is detected, and a tremor of magnitude 1.5 occurred which forced the company to stop hydraulic fracturing activity for at least 18 hours. The company first produced shale gas in 2011 but had to suspend operations after a 2.3 magnitude earth tremor on the Fylde coast at the time caused protests from environmentalists who fear the technique could cause earthquakes and drinking water contamination. The government imposed a temporary nationwide ban on fracking after it was revealed in a study that probably the tremor was caused by shale gas test drilling.
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