The BBC is reporting today that Lord (Chris) Smith, chair of the Environment Agency, has come out in favour of fracking – the controversial method for extracting gas from shale. In reality his words are not a clearcut endorsement for the practice.
The Beeb points out that Smith said on the Today programme that he only backed fracking if it was accompanied by successful carbon capture & storage, which so far only exists in pilot form.
In fact his concerns are wider. In his speech tonight at the RSA he will say that fracking “potentially ticks the box on energy security, on availability and on cost“.
But he adds: “Does it tick the box on environment? The answer is complex, and is something like ‘up to a point’.” If Britain locks itself into a new generation of gas, “with all the carbon consequences“, it would be unable to reduce the carbon impact of its power generation to zero, he will say.
Lord Smith will also add that fracking needs careful use of drilling technology and rigorous monitoring and inspection. No doubt he is aware of the controversy surrounding the chemicals which are used in the process of extraction – skilfully described in this excellent feature by our environment correspondent, Pilita Clark.
The peer will use his speech to make a broader warning that green issues are sliding down the political agenda despite being among the most important challenges facing the UK.
In a rare intervention by the former Labour culture secretary, the peer will use his first big speech for three years to call for the government to “acknowledge and respect” that environmental policy is essential and not an optional extra.
The comments come as the coalition is shedding several green commitments in order to focus on economic growth. “We can’t abandon either green or growth,” he will say in tonight’s speech.
Lord Smith told me he backed the coalition’s attempts to streamline regulation to make it less bureaucratic. The government has carried out a “red tape challenge” to strip away unnecessary burdens on companies.
But he challenged the focus on cutting legislation, saying there was a reason why many regulations existed. “Because things like putting toxins into our water or into the air simply aren’t acceptable … we need to keep these protections,” he said.
In his speech, Lord Smith will cite the example of Britain’s failure to be a market leader in wind turbine production, despite having done pioneering work in the sector 20 years ago. “Let’s not make the same mistake with the development of wave and tidal power,” he will say.
Britain is leading the technology in wave power, with seven out of the eight full-scale prototypes anywhere in the world. Lord Smith, who is a crossbench peer – despite his Labour background – will say that the global market for wave power could be huge “but we need to get our skates on”.
George Osborne, the chancellor, has been conspicuous for his switch away from green rhetoric, insisting that environmental measures should not come at the expense of the economy. He has offered financial assistance for energy-intensive industries affected by the imminent “carbon floor price” and has promised an opt-out clause for carbon reduction targets.
Lord Smith told the FT that it was inevitable that during a recession the green agenda would sometimes overtaken by more bread-and-butter issues. But he cited the strong performance by the Green candidates in last week’s local elections as proof the public had not turned their backs on environmental issues.
The peer will admit he has warmed to the idea of nuclear power because it produces close to zero greenhouse gas emissions.
“If you had asked me 20 years ago about nuclear power, I would have take the traditional green view and said something like ‘over my dead body’,” he will say. “To achieve decarbonisation of our power, nuclear has to be part of the answer.”