By Mark Wallace
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Another day, another front page row about fracking. This time the Mail on Sunday has gone to town on Michael Fallon's comments about the impact of the process on the countryside:
"Referring to people living in the countryside who have supported fracking, Energy Minister Michael Fallon said at a private meeting in Westminster: ‘We are going to see how thick their rectory walls are, whether they like the flaring at the end of the drive!’"
Fallon is a great minister, and an enthusiastic supporter of shale gas as a route to boost the British economy. It seems fairly clear his remarks were hyperbolic – and as a backer of the new industry, Fallon was warning of the political challenges to come rather than making what the Mail on Sunday's Brasseye headline calls a "Doomsday alert".
His point, which is a thinly-veiled jibe at the expense of Charles Moore, a pro-fracker who lives in a rectory, is that the big hurdle for shale gas will be winning and keeping the support of those in areas where it is carried out. That's hardly a controversial point – in fact it's one I made two months ago and the Institute of Directors have been making for almost a year – but the use of imagery about shaking walls has been seized on to make it one.
It may not deserve to be a row, but a row it now is. This is the most frustrating result of Lord Howell's ill-advised comments the other day: they have given the press the excuse to be hypersensitive to any tongue in cheek remark or perceived slight.
With a watchful press and the usual professional protestors popping up at any and every opportunity, proponents of shale gas are in danger of completely losing their grip on the public debate.
Myths abound, such as the idea of poisoned water supplies, as do outrageous examples of scaremongering, such as the cries about earthquakes, which neglect to mention that the tremors in Lancashire were smaller in scale than dozens which occur in Britain already and go completely unnoticed.
It is worth reading the rebuttal piece by Cuadrilla's Francis Egan, also published in the Mail on Sunday today. Most notable is the figure for the area of land required for fracking enough shale gas to provide a third of the UK's gas demand each year. 100 wells will take up a grand total of two square kilometres. Two. Square. Kilometres.
In a future with shale gas, the fact is we would hardly notice the installations involved in its extraction. The way in which it would impinge on our awareness would be through its huge benefits to the United Kingdom.
Large numbers of new engineering jobs, and many more in the supply chain. Cheaper energy for households who have seen bills go through the roof in recent years. Raw materials and lower running costs to bring manufacturing back onshore. Less reliance on gas imported from Vladimir Putin and the House of Saud, and increased energy security.
But that will only happen if government, the media and – most importantly – local residents are convinced of the positive reasons to do it. Otherwise, we face a future with even less energy security, even higher bills and a dwindling manufacturing base as our international comeptitors grow rich on a resource that we choose to leave dormant beneath our feet.
It would be disastrous if we miss out on this opportunity because of a barrage of lies and a failure to get a supportive campaign into gear.