Nothing quite says “we have this under control” than a Government announcement that within a matter of days they will set out an “energy supply strategy” that fixes the age-old question of energy security. It has long been an issue that we in the West are too reliant on Russia for oil and gas, but nothing quite focuses minds like a crisis and the invasion of Ukraine has once again brought the energy crisis to the fore.
Now it is true that the UK is only reliant on Russia for 3% of our gas, but to a large extent the price of gas dictates overall wholesale electricity prices, and we have seen prices skyrocket in just the past week. Merely weeks before energy bills rise by £700 to £2,000 – forecasts now warn that average bills for all could reach a staggering £4,000 a year.
So is the answer to rising gas prices to pump more gas or to turn our backs on it? One could see this crisis as a vindication of the net zero agenda, that renewables are the only way forward because they can give us cheap, domestically produced energy. For others, it is proof that the net zero agenda is raising the cost of living by forcing us to turn our back on domestic oil and gas exploration. The latter group point to fracking as the answer who claim we could emulate the success it has seen in America. But local communities have consistently opposed fracking due to fears around safety, so a reintroduction would be politically controversial in the very seats the Conservatives need to hold on to if they want to keep their majority at the next election.
Once again, this split is no more present than within Boris’ Cabinet. The BEIS Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has consistently turned to Twitter to defend the use of renewables as a cheaper energy source. The Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, on the other hand, held a meeting with fracking firm Cuadrilla, alongside 30 Conservative backbenchers. Rees-Mogg is no stranger to leading backbench discontent and will be buoyed by the support of the Conservative Net Zero Scrutiny Group, the campaign group Net Zero Watch, and now Nigel Farage’s campaign for a referendum on net zero. The net zero agenda has huge support within the Government and the Conservative parliamentary party, but it would be wrong to dismiss the growing support for fracking amongst MPs that Boris is wise to keep on side.
We do not know for sure what will be in this new “energy supply strategy”, but reports point to encouraging more offshore wind and solar power, the acceleration of hydrogen production and interestingly a relaxation of onshore wind regulations. This is consistent with everything the BEIS Secretary has been saying. Of note though, Kwasi’s stance on fracking has evolved slightly over the past few days, moving from “those who call for fracking misunderstand the current situation” to “we will take a precautionary approach that supports shale gas exploration if it can be done in a safe and sustainable way.”
All eyes will therefore be on the new strategy expected in a matter of days. Whatever route Boris chooses – whether he re-opens a route to develop fracking or onshore wind, or both – he will overturn decisions by the Cameron Government which curtailed both.