Dominic Lawson: On Fracking, 1066 And All That

  • Date: 08/08/16
  • Dominic Lawson, Daily Mail

Do you remember The Beverly Hillbillies? It was my favourite television series as a child. For those too young to know, this was a Sixties American comedy show based on the concept of an impoverished family of hicks — the Clampetts — who suddenly become immensely wealthy and move to a mansion in Beverly Hills after a company develops vast oil reserves under the swamp near their home.

Although the series was popular in the UK, there could never have been a British equivalent to the Clampetts.

The Beverley Hillbillies, pictured, was a show about an impoverished family who strike oil beneath their swamp and see their lives transformed - but this could not happen in the UK

The Beverley Hillbillies, pictured, was a show about an impoverished family who strike oil beneath their swamp and see their lives transformed – but this could not happen in the UK

For while in the U.S. mineral rights belong to the owner of the land above — and so they can sell those rights to oil companies. In this country, all such rights belong to the Crown.

Anglo-Saxons still smarting over the Norman Conquest can blame this loss of an Englishman’s full property rights on the avaricious French invader: in fact, the law on mineral rights was finally clarified in favour of the Crown — what we now think of as the State — in the 1934 Petroleum Production Act.

Now, it seems, Theresa May is doing a little something to restore matters to their pre-1066 status.

She has declared that the Shale Wealth Fund — set up in 2014 by the then Chancellor George Osborne to give up to £1 billion for ‘community benefit’ in areas of shale gas production — might now distribute such money directly to local home-owners.

Under Osborne’s scheme, this money, taken out of the business rates paid by the profits of the exploration companies, was only to be made available to local authorities and ‘community groups’.

Mrs May has justified her decision as follows: ‘I said on my first night as Prime Minister: when we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but of you.

‘This announcement is an example of putting those principles into action. It’s about making sure people personally benefit from economic decisions that are taken — not just councils.’

Green groups see it differently. They are almost incontinent with rage at what they see as a ‘bribe’ by the Government to win local consent for ‘fracking’.

This is shorthand for ‘hydraulic fracturing’, the process by which huge quantities of water are injected into wells at such high pressure that the shale layers thousands of feet underground fracture, releasing the gas trapped in them.

This process was developed in the U.S. in the Nineties — and to vast benefit, not just to those selling mineral rights but to that nation as a whole.

Because it is a much cheaper way of getting oil and gas than drilling offshore in say, the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. energy costs have fallen dramatically.

This not only created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the areas of exploration, it also made U.S. manufacturers more competitive worldwide.

Europe — and the UK — have been the losers. As the International Energy Agency warned in 2013: ‘Today, there is a substantial gap between the U.S. and Europe in gas and electricity prices.

‘This is a serious problem for Europe. This will have huge costs in terms of employment . . . there will be a knock-on effect on the whole economy [of Europe].’

One of the reasons for European hostility to shale gas is that as a carbon-based energy source, its emissions contribute to climate-change via the greenhouse effect.

However, American CO2 emissions have actually declined during the shale boom, as gas has replaced coal, which per unit of energy emits about twice as much CO2.

Something similar could happen here, as the British Geological Survey has identified a resource of 1.3 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in the North of England alone — equivalent to more than 500 years’ worth of our annual gas consumption….

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