What the frack?

The Church of England on Friday issued a press release about fracking (hydraulic fracturing). It declared that there is no official CofE policy on this issue. Be that as it may, the tone of the press release is mostly positive, and there is an implication that lower fuel prices as a result of fracking will ease financial pressure on some of society’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

I do not wish to address in this post the issues around good stewardship of our planet and neighbourhoods, and the theology of opposing wanton damage of the environment for the sake of profit. The Diocese of Blackburn and the Bishop of Chichester have both been contributing to that debate, and I welcome these contributions and their faithfulness to the fifth “mark of mission“. EDIT: Andrew Whitehead has also written about these issues and about the strategic problem of trying to use ever-more-difficult-to-extract fossil fuels instead of changing our behaviour so we don’t rely on them. END OF EDIT.

I am not going to discuss in this post the thorny problem of church-owned land and mineral rights, or try to weigh whether the good done by the Church of England is enough to justify possible profit from an industrial process that extract a harmful fuel in a harmful way. Since I first read the press release it has been updated to clarify that registration of mineral rights would be happening regardless, due to government legislation requiring such interests to be registered by October 2013. As I understand it this isn’t about the C of E profiting from fracking, but more about mineral companies not being able to do so without permission! Fair enough.

Rather, I wish to question the implication that fracking will somehow relieve fuel poverty.

First of all, I am uncertain that fracking will affect consumer fuel prices much to begin with. Fracking is an expensive technology and this will, one way or another, be passed on to consumers. If fuel prices fall fracking becomes uneconomical. So at best, it might stop prices rising as quickly as they otherwise might.

Fuel poverty is not just about the price of fuel. Poverty in one aspect of life is not isolated from other factors and we must see and address fuel poverty in the context in which it actually occurs, rather than as a lone variable that can be manipulated by fuel prices and only by fuel prices.

Fuel poverty is often linked to houses and flats with totally inadequate insulation and inefficient appliances. I’ve lived in London for thirteen years now, and the only places I’ve rented that had anything like sufficient insulation have been the ones where gas and electric were included in my rent. There isn’t any incentive for my landlord to replace the leaky sash windows in my bedroom with modern double glazing, and this is so common as to be utterly unremarkable. Indeed, many places are worse: we do have double glazing in two rooms (two windows, out of ten), and I believe the loft is also insulated. I have lived in houses and flats with no double glazing at all, and friends have endured broken windows and even holes in outside walls. Of course this is reflected in gas and electric bills. Energy ratings on rented homes are meant to help, but the poorest and most vulnerable tenants can’t afford to be picky. Without enforceable legislation requiring landlords to improve energy efficiency, this situation will continue. We can’t look at fuel poverty as separate from housing shortage and poor energy regulations.

I wrote above of gas and electric bills. This betrays a certain amount of stability: I have only moved nine times in the thirteen years I have lived in London, and in most places I have lived there have been quarterly fuel bills. But some flats have had pre-paid meters, designed to prevent tenants running up debts to the suppliers. Some of the older ones of these take pound or 50p coins, but most have an electronic key that can be topped up with credit at a corner shop. The idea is that you can buy your energy a bit at a time, avoiding the surprise of a large quarterly bill, but also not needing access to a bank account for a monthly direct debit. Sounds like a great idea, right? Only buy what you’re going to use, and a great incentive to use less if money is tight. But if you run out of money and credit at the same time you’re basically out of luck (emergency credit generally doesn’t last long in my experience, and in shared housing it’s easy to end up in a game of “top-up chicken”), and the rechargeable keys do break occasionally. But the energy bought via these pre-paid meters is around 20% more expensive than it is for people who pay by monthly direct debit. Tenants, of course, are not generally allowed to change the meter, and anyway you need a good credit rating to do so. Until fairly recently it was common for extra premiums, fees, or higher rates to be charged to people who had pre-payment meters: this has now changed, but it still isn’t illegal. We can’t address fuel poverty without considering structural inequality in pricing and access to banking facilities.

In short, implying that fracking will make any serious dent in fuel poverty doesn’t seem credible to me. I know that within the Church of England there are people and groups working to address the causes and alleviate the effects of housing shortages and structural inequality in pricing. My question is this: what does the C of E stand to gain by having “no official policy” regarding fracking? Why imply that fracking will help with fuel poverty, when this is obviously questionable?

This is best left as an exercise for the reader.

4 thoughts on “What the frack?

  1. Well said artsyhonker! I’m involved in supporting LGBT rights in the church, and it’s sometimes easy to allow yourself to think that when the small matter of the Women Thing and the Gay Thing is sorted out in the next five or ten years, we might be left with a reasonable institution that will do some much needed good in the world. So their fracking press release left me banging my head repeatedly against the wall. I believe that even the frackers themselves admit that this is unlikely to make fuel any cheaper. It seems that the government will try anything at all except for investing in a sustainable green infrastructure – presumably because their donors and mates won’t get rich that way. It’s entirely depressing that the church can’t be a bit more imaginative than that.

    Meanwhile, their press office is so damn genteel that they can’t utter the word ‘fracking’ like the rest of us (does it sound too much like Something Rude?) and go on about ‘hydraulic fracturing’ instead. Which is wonderfully illustrative of the church’s knack of upholding standards on the things that matter least.

  2. P.S. Of all the things to press release about in the world, saying that the C of E might be moderately supportive of fracking is just a very odd thing to choose anyway. A first mis-step by the generally surefooted oil man at the top?

  3. I haven’t seen any credible explanation of why the exploitation of shale gas should cause fuel prices to go down. The closest is “well, it worked for America”, which is referring to a situation that is different in very many ways.
    So far as I can tell it’s some wishful thinking from Mr Osborne that others have picked up on :-/

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