With the briefing battle in full swing, Ministers are considering a raft of competing proposals for curbing UK fossil fuel imports
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour Leader Keir Starmer clashed over the UK’s energy policy at Prime Minister’s Questions this lunchtime, trading barbs over who precisely was to blame for soaring domestic energy bills and the country’s suddenly worrying reliance on imported fossil fuels. As is so often the case the exchanges generated more heat than light, with Starmer accusing the government of “protecting energy profits not working people” and Johnson countering that it was “failed energy policies” from 15 years ago that have left the UK without enough nuclear power capacity.
However, if the government and the opposition disagree on who is to blame and what should happen next, there is a broad agreement that something needs to be done. As Johnson observed today there will be “dark days ahead, and difficult times”, as energy prices soar and the economic fallout from Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine escalates. Meanwhile, pressure continues to intensify on the government to explain how the UK would cope if the Kremlin makes good on its threats to restrict fossil fuel exports or if the Western Alliance opts to extend sanctions to cover oil and gas.
Johnson has promised that a new Energy Independence Plan is imminent, with reports suggesting it could come as soon as next week. The move has sparked fierce debates both within government and more broadly over what should be included in the plan and which measures are likely to have the quickest effect in reducing the UK’s exposure to fossil fuel imports and high and volatile wholesale gas and oil prices.
And today saw a number of competing camps set out their stalls, with strategic leaking from within government and lobbying from outside stepping up a gear.
First up, The Telegraph reported that Johnson had hinted in yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that he could be open to ending the moratorium on fracking. The paper acknowledged that Ministers had offered differing interpretations of Johnson’s comments in the meeting, and a Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) spokesperson insisted the moratorium remained in place, adding that “fracking would have no effect on domestic prices in near future”. But advocates of fracking within Cabinet clearly feel there were “positive noises” around the table and the urgent need to tap domestic sources of energy could trigger a rethink.
However, for many within the energy industry talk of a fracking revival represents a huge distraction that would have a negligible impact on UK gas supplies and would result in fierce opposition from local communities and environmental campaigners. Meanwhile, green groups were predictably quick to slam the proposal for an end to the moratorium, with Greenpeace’s head of energy Rosie Rogers noting that “after a decade of hype and bluster, all the fracking industry has given us are two holes in a muddy field and some minor earthquakes”.
“Trying to restart fracking now would only mean wasting more time when we have little,” she added. “It will take many years to develop and if it ever gets produced, it will be sold to the highest bidder on the international market, with no impact on our energy bills. If the UK and Europe want to end their dependence on Russian gas, the quickest way to do that is by insulating homes, installing heat pumps and boosting renewables. These are tried and tested technologies, quick to deploy and getting cheaper all the time. With the Spring Statement just around the corner, the UK government should work on an emergency plan to free our country from gas dependence. This would protect households from soaring bills, tackle the climate crisis and weaken Putin’s hand.”
There are signs that Greenpeace may get its wish, in part at least. Separately, The Times reported this morning that Ministers are examining plans to relax restrictions on new onshore wind farms as part of the new energy supply package. Senior government officials cautioned that no decision had yet been made but admitted discussions were continuing.
The government has already reversed a Cameron-era decision that blocked onshore wind projects from competing for government-backed clean energy contracts at auction, but the industry has warned that planning restrictions in England remain so tight that a de facto ban on development outside Scotland and Wales remains in place. “Under the current system, unlike other planning applications, onshore wind projects in England can be rejected if one single person objects to them going ahead,” Dan McGrail, chief executive of RenewableUK, told The Times. “That needs to change if we’re serious about securing Britain’s energy independence and reaching net zero as fast as possible.”
Industry insiders are adamant onshore renewables projects such as wind and solar farms should form a central part of the government’s new energy security plans, given they could be constructed in a matter of months if planning and grid connection processes were streamlined.
Meanwhile, members of the Conservative Environment Network wrote to Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng this week calling on him to increase the government’s target for floating wind projects so as to help mobilise more investment in the nascent sector. And the industry received a further dual boost today, as ScottishPower and Shell announced the launch of a £50m supply chain stimulus fund for their two ScotWind floating turbine projects, Marram Wind and Campion Wind, and the Crown Estate confirmed it has completed phase two of its ongoing engagement with the market and stakeholders, seeking input to plans for up to 4GW of floating wind leasing in the Celtic Sea.
At the same time, speculation is mounting that the marine energy sector could also be incorporated in the new Energy Independence Plan, after Kwarteng namechecked the oft-sidelined industry in a list of technologies he sees playing a key role in the UK’s renewed energy security push. The Guardian reported today that plans for tidal energy projects in the Severn Estuary could be back on the agenda, after an independent commission was launched to again explore the potential for harnessing tidal energy from the estuary.
Significantly, the launch of the commission by the Western Gateway Powerhouse coalition of politicians, business and public sector leaders and academics was welcomed by Levelling up Secretary Michael Gove, who said “sustainable forms of energy cannot come soon enough” in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “The launch of an independent commission on tidal energy for the Severn is very welcome news,” he added.
Meanwhile, a cross-party group of over 300 MPs this week backed a new private members Local Electricity Bill, which aims to establish a ‘Right to Local Supply’ that would make it easier for communities to sell locally generated electricity directly to local households, businesses, and public services. Power for People, the campaign backing the proposed legislation, said the Bill would remove barriers to community energy projects that could allow the sector to grow 20-fold by 2030, taking it from 0.5 per cent to 10 per cent of UK electricity generation and bringing widespread knock-on economic, social, and energy security benefits.
However, despite the growing calls from numerous quarters it remains to be seen to what extent renewables are prioritised in the upcoming plan, with reports suggesting that measures to boost renewables development are likely to be accompanied by plans to fast track the development of new nuclear projects and award more licenses for North Sea oil and gas licenses.
Privately, many green campaigners accept that more action to boost domestic gas supplies is all but inevitable given the extent to which Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has been exposed. But there is also concern that if the new strategy is to be fit for purpose it needs to be primarily focused on renewables and energy-saving measures, as unlike new nuclear and offshore drilling projects these can be delivered within months rather than decades, and as such would prove more effective at curbing Russian exports.
“In the short term we’ll keep sending £6m per day to Putin in gas money, while British people’s bills continue to skyrocket,” said Rogers, adding that plans to issue new oil and gas licenses in response to the crisis was “inadequate, wrongheaded and foolish”. “Johnson – and [Chancellor Rishi] Sunak alike – seem completely disinterested in tackling energy demand,” she said. “We need a race for renewables, heat pumps and home insulation to isolate Putin.”
There is also evidence that such a plan would be popular with the public, according to a new Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) commissioned poll from Opinium, which found 57 per cent of the public see the best way of eliminating UK dependence on Russian gas in the longer-term as reducing gas use all together, while just 29 per cent advocate for increasing the UK’s domestic supply of gas through expanded drilling and fracking.
“Brits are willing to chip in to get the UK off Russian gas and see net zero policies as the solution, which means expanding British renewables and insulating homes so they waste less energy,” said Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, head of analysis at the ECIU. “More gas won’t bring down the energy bills of those struggling to pay, but insulation can and does so permanently.”
A major shake-up of the UK’s energy policies is now both inevitable and imminent. The good news for the net zero transition is that there seems to be an understanding at the top of government that clean technologies and energy efficiency represent one of the quickest and most effective means of boosting energy security. However, at the same time a combination of legitimate concerns over gas supply security and noises off from critics of the net zero transition means the new strategy is likely to include moves to boost North Sea oil and gas production. The EU’s release yesterday of its own energy security plan may have provided a useful template to follow, but that too was criticised by campaigners for failing to properly prioritise the energy efficiency measures and communications strategies that could help cut oil and gas use with near immediate effect.
The rough shape of new plan is already clear, but big unanswered questions remain over the balance the government wants to strike between near term measures to slash imports and longer-term efforts to bolster energy security, as well as how ambitious Ministers are prepared to be? Will the Treasury back a war effort style push to save energy and switch to heat pumps as fast as possible, or will the government simply reheat a Heat and Buildings Strategy that the Climate Change Committee today criticised for its glaring policy and funding gaps? Prime Ministers’ Questions provided no answer to this crucial question. The hope is that Johnson’s new Energy Independence Plan brings some urgent clarity.
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