Criminal negligence of our energy security has put Britain at risk

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Hopefully, and it will be with luck, as there appears to have been very little planning to avoid or mitigate this episode, the current fuel starvation could prove to be temporary. Once motorists stop joining the queues every time an oil tanker is seen disgorging its precious cargo, supplies should be gradually restored.

But the underlying problem remains: a shortage of drivers to deliver gasoline and diesel to service stations. Whatever the cause, be it Brexit, Covid, low wages, or a combination of all three, the problem has been known for years. This shortage is also hitting farmers, food processors and supermarkets who operate just-in-time supply chains that are efficient but vulnerable when even small things go wrong.

Our curse is that we also have just-in-time politicians, an approach to governance that relies on something happening – although these Micawberist tendencies are not unique to Boris Johnson and his team. Short-termism has been a pernicious feature of successive Conservative and Labor governments, especially when it comes to our energy policy. Running out of gas for a few days can be annoying and inconvenient; running out of the means to feed the country is a whole new level of calamity, and yet this is where we are headed unless some serious decisions are made quickly. It may already be too late.

How did we get here 50 years after the extent of the oil reserves under the North Sea became apparent? Gas had already started to land in the late 1960s, prompting a massive scheme to convert every appliance in the UK to use natural gas instead of coal-derived ‘town gas’ (something similar is planned to phase out gas boilers in the next 20 years).

The discovery of the Brent oil field in 1971 was a watershed moment in the country’s post-war history. This seemed to portend great wealth and energy self-sufficiency, although neither materialized. At the time, Britain was a hopeless economic case in the grip of union activists and North Sea oil seemed to be our salvation. It certainly looked like that to our competitors.

Across the Channel, the French, without depleted oil and coal reserves, have instead invested in nuclear power. Over the next 15 years, France installed 56 reactors, meeting its energy needs and even exporting electricity to other European countries, including us.

They produce 70% of their electricity by nuclear fission, which does not emit CO2, and does not depend on energy from volatile regions like the Gulf or despotic regimes like Russia. It was as much a case of force majeure as of foreknowledge. As the French say: “No oil, no gas, no coal, no choice”. As a result, they are in a better position than Britain, despite the headache of storing reactor waste, although recycled fuel provides 17% of French electricity.

On the other hand, and because of the apparent windfall provided by oil from the North Sea, we have shamefully neglected the only source of energy that would create self-sufficiency and achieve low carbon goals. The Thatcher government ordered eight new reactors, but the cheap gas made the economy problematic and only one was built. It was only when it was too late and much of the industry’s expertise was lost that the last Labor government attempted to reactivate the nuclear program. The Coalition agreed to build the first new reactor at Hinkley Point using French technology and Chinese finance, a damning indictment of our own failure to revive an industry we pioneered.

The future reactors should have been Chinese-built, which now seems inconceivable given the cooling of relations between the West and Beijing. There is talk of a new era of nuclear power generation, focused on smaller, cheaper reactors designed and built in the UK to provide local power generation. Ultimately, we should invest in thorium reactors, which do not present any of the risks and waste associated with the uranium fission cycle. But it would take decades to undertake such a program, so we need an abundant interim power source.

Ten years ago we found one in the vast amounts of shale beneath our feet. One commentator excited about the prospect was Boris Johnson, who, as mayor of London in 2012, wrote an article in this newspaper under the headline: ‘Ignore the merchants of doom – Britain should be fractured. “

He added: “Wave energy, solar energy, biomass – their collective punch would not tear the skin of a rice pudding… We depend more and more and in a humiliating way on the gas of Vladimir Putin or of atomic energy from the French state… By offering the hope of cheap electricity, fracking would allow Great Britain to become competitive again in industrial sectors where hope has been lost… , as they say, not to like?

Yet Mr Johnson’s administration abandoned the hydraulic fracturing program due to the likelihood of tremors associated with the process. If such geological impact tests had been applied to coal mining, we would never have had an industrial revolution.

At the time, Mr Johnson denounced the “crazy denunciations of hydraulic fracturing” with a green movement he had recently championed to the world in his Kermit the Frog speech at the UN. He was right then and wrong now. Shale gas, while not carbon free, reduces emissions and replaces more environmentally damaging imports. The United States is now a gas exporter, energy costs have been reduced and thousands of jobs have been created. The Americans have fulfilled their obligations under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change without even signing up.

Environmentalists hate this because they are opposed to any form of economic growth. Yet at their behest we are betting all on a huge expansion of offshore wind power generation which is inefficient on calm days, must be backed up by gas, and can never produce enough electricity for a modern economy and a population of around 70 million inhabitants.

The duty of the state is to protect the nation from harm by anticipating its future needs. Generations to come will see the failure to harness and develop the energy sources that would have guaranteed our energy security as criminal negligence.


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