Energised future from green and pleasant land
Fracking ... the answer to England's prayers? Illustration: Rod Clement.
If it were not so serious there would be something ludicrous about the reaction of the green lobby to the discovery of big shale gas reserves in England. Here we are in the fifth year of a downturn. We have pensioners battling fuel poverty. We have energy companies jacking up their prices. We have real worries about security of energy supply.
Our nukes are so high-maintenance that the cost of disposing of their spent fuel rods is put at about £100 billion ($153 billion), more than the value of all the electricity they have produced since the '50s. The hills and dales of Britain are being forested with white satanic mills, and yet the total contribution of wind power is still only about 0.4 per cent of Britain's needs. Wave power, solar power, biomass, their collective oomph won't pull the skin off a rice pudding. We are prevented from putting in a new system of coal-fired power stations, since that would breach our commitments under Kyoto. We are, therefore, increasingly and humiliatingly dependent on Vladimir Putin's gas or on the atomic power of the French state.
And, then, in the region of Blackpool - as if by a miracle - we may have found the solution. The extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracture, or fracking, seems an answer to the nation's prayers. There are loads of the stuff, apparently, about 1.3 trillion barrels; and if we could get it out we could power our toasters and dishwashers for the foreseeable future. By offering the hope of cheap electricity, fracking would make Britain competitive again in sectors of industry where we have lost hope.
The extraction process alone would generate tens of thousands of jobs in parts of the country that desperately need them. And above all, the burning of gas to generate electricity is much, much cleaner, and produces less CO2, than burning coal. What, as they say, is not to like?
In their mad denunciations of fracking, the greens and the eco-warriors betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news. Beware this new technology, they wail. Do not tamper with the corsets of Gaia. Don't probe her loamy undergarments with so much as a finger, or else the goddess of the earth will erupt with seismic revenge. Dig out this shale gas, they warn, and our water will be poisoned and our children will be stunted and our cattle will be victims of terrible intestinal explosions.
On Monday, The Observer found some political support for the gloomsters, in the form of German Jo Leinen. It seems he is a prominent member of the Euro Parliament's energy committee and he says only two countries are interested in this procedure: Poland and Britain. According to Herr Leinen, neither of us knows what we are getting ourselves into. We are about to release the pent-up shale gas of Britain from its sinister cavities beneath Lancashire and Sussex, and anything can happen. Before we touch the integuments of the planet, he says, the Euro Parliament will produce some regulations to ''discipline'' the operation.
Regulations? From the Euro Parliament? And these people wonder why we in Britain are increasingly determined to have a referendum on our membership of the European Union. I am sure that the SPD politician means well, but just what in the name of hell has it got to do with him?
Before he draws up any regulations for the British fracking market, he might care to look at what has been going on in the US in the past four years, where the discovery of large quantities of shale gas is turning into one of the most significant political events since the end of the Cold War.
In 2008 the cost of natural gas in the US was $8 a unit. It is now $3 a unit. In China it is still up at $12 a unit, and the result is that the US is now competitive in industries such as fertilisers and chemicals that US politicians had long since assumed were lost to low-cost economies of the East.
With the use of gas, the US has cut its CO2 emissions to levels not seen since the '90s, despite a growing population.
Indeed, the US has now actually met its obligations under the Kyoto protocol on climate change, and it never even signed up for it.
The shale gas industry is a huge employer, and has so far contributed $50 billion in tax. As for the anxieties about water poisoning or a murrain on the cattle, there have been 125,000 fracks in the US, and not a single complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency.
It is no wonder that some of the more heroic spirits in the Coalition Government are saying we should get our act together, and make use of what nature has bestowed on Lancashire and elsewhere.
As soon as he became Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson announced that he was going to make life easy for potential frackers with a one-stop permit system. He has the support of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who hailed the potential of fracking in the Autumn Statement.
Alas, we are in a coalition, and the Liberals run the Department of Energy and Climate Change and they have announced a moratorium on fracking, claiming there have been earthquakes in the Blackpool area, even though there are tiny quakes every day.
In what they thought was a cunning move, the Lib Dems also leaked the location of two big reserves of shale gas, in Tatton and Shropshire North.
Much to his credit, Mr Paterson immediately said he was all in favour of fracking his constituency if it would deliver jobs and growth, and he is dead right.
The shale gas discovery is hateful to the Libs and the greens, because it destroys their narrative about the ever-rising cost of hydrocarbons.
It is glorious news for humanity.
It doesn't need the subsidy of wind power. I don't know whether it will work in Britain, but we should get fracking right away.
Boris Johnson is the mayor of London.