For such a basic part of the economy and people’s lives, energy is a remarkably minor topic, politically speaking. The hacking scandal is interesting, but won't affect people's lives in a decade. Energy policy might.
Sadly, environmentalists have been given nearly a free rein in the field of energy policy, without much input from people concerned about the impact of anti-carbon regulations on the economy or poor people’s ability to pay. Note the constant lumping together of energy and climate change policy, as if these are just two sides of the same coin. This is a big mistake. As the “Rational Optimist” Matt Ridley argued in a superb piece for the Times last week (now on his blog, free for the world to read), the price of energy is fundamental to our economic wellbeing:
Cheap energy is the elixir of economic growth. It was Newcastle’s cheap coal that gave the industrial revolution its second wind — substituting energy for labour drove up productivity, creating jobs and enriching both producers and consumers. Conversely, a dear-energy policy destroys jobs. Not only does it drive energy-intensive business overseas; according to Charles Hendry, the Energy Minister, the average British medium-sized business will face an annual energy bill £247,000 higher by 2020 thanks to the carbon policy. That’s equivalent to almost ten jobs it must lose, or cannot create.
Let's accept that a low carbon economy is a desirable thing, but reject the apocalyptic hysteria that some push (without much scientific basis for doing so). That’s one desirable objective out of three or four others – including growing richer, making sure poor people can afford to heat their homes, and encouraging innovation in all sorts of fields. Is there a tension between the low carbon goal and the other ones? A bit, yes, but environmentalists are protesting a little too much when they emphasise carbon reduction over all other priorities.
A decent compromise already exists, and Britain is fortunate enough to have quite a lot of it: shale gas. Shale gas is cheap, efficient and low carbon compared to other fossil fuels. Conservative estimates say that there’s enough shale gas in the US to last at least fifty years. This video from Reason.tv explains some of the process by which shale gas is extracted from the ground – a process known as “fracking”. In this case we really can have our cake and eat it too: everybody should be happy.
But they’re not. Environmentalist groups have condemned fracking, on largely spurious grounds. Indeed, many were for it before they realised that it was an alternative to renewable energy, not a suppliment. Why? Because many in the environmentalist movement, particularly the more politically active ones, are more interested in controlling people's lives than in promoting a “clean” atmosphere. They are the new puritans, who want us to live "good" lives instead of rewarding ones. As a consequence, heavy-handed environmental regulations are making shale gas unviable in Britain. This needs to change so we aren't left behind.
Shale gas is a get-out clause for people who want cheap and clean energy, but it doesn't include the lifestyle changes that hardcore environmentalists want us to make. This is a point that’s been made plenty of times before. But the environmentalist movement's ludicrous opposition to shale gas exploitation underlines its true aims. Many of them don’t really care about the environment, they care about pushing people around. What a shame that, for political expediency, they’re being allowed to.