October 24, 2011
Since the mid 1990s the issues that surround the question of energy production have changed greatly. On the positive side, the economic growth in areas of the world such as India and China means that the world demand for energy has grown substantially. On the negative side, anxieties about how to meet this demand have grown even more. What should be both an exciting business opportunity and an opportunity to improve substantially the lives of billions of people, has become an unseemly, and at times dishonest, political row.
So what is it that has got us so hot under the collar about energy? From fracking to Fukushima, to oil spills and the threat of global warming, an alarming aspect of the energy debate is the way it has become conducted through the prism of fear. The most striking recent example of this was the spectacle of the German government, having only last year marshalled the dangers of climate change to advance the importance of nuclear power, soaking up anxieties about the threat posed by tsunamis and earthquakes to conduct a sudden about-turn in policy about the wisdom of locating nuclear plants on its shores. No matter that no-one has yet died as a consequence of the nuclear disaster in Japan, it is the political fall-out of Fukushima that has dominated the world’s headlines more than the thousands killed by the natural disaster and the plight of those rebuilding their lives.
Whether it is Indian businesses experiencing planned outages to ration supply, the billion-plus villagers in the world not yet connected to an electricity grid, or British consumers facing massively increasing energy prices, the question of how to ramp up energy production and distribution efficiently is an important global debate. But when our imaginations are so easily gripped by worst-case-scenarios, more existential threats seem to come to the fore and undermine our ability to make sober assessments of the options available to us.
An important barometer of our ability to engage in more measured debate will undoubtedly be provided by growing international interest in shale gas and the associated process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has become known. For some, the prospect of abundant sources of gas becoming accessible at relatively cheap prices is being lauded as a welcome ‘game-changer’ in the energy debate; whilst for others this is ‘oh so much hype’ and an evasion of the more important task of moving away from fossil fuels. The battle lines are being drawn with the trading of cherry-picked data and excerpts from favoured reports likely to follow.