David Cameron issues a warning to the European Union that imposing “burdensome” regulations on shale gas exploration would deter investment and job creation.
Speaking at the Davos economic summit, the prime minister said “cheap and predictable” energy sources could attract jobs back to Europe which had been “off-shored” to Asia.
But he argued that over-regulating the exploration of shale gas, which has led to big falls in people’s energy bills in the US, would be economically damaging. “To relocate in Europe, businesses will be encouraged by cheap and predictable sources of energy,” he said.
“We should be clear that if the European Union or its member states impose burdensome, unjustified or premature regulatory burdens on shale gas exploration in Europe, investors will quickly head elsewhere.”
Mr Cameron acknowledged there were genuine concerns about fracking, but said it could have significant benefits for the economy and the environment.
“We need the right regulations, such as ensuring that well casings are set at the right depths with tight seals, and governments need to reassure people that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers.
“But if this is done properly, shale gas can actually have lower emissions than imported gas.”
The prime minister said Brussels tended to draw up “incredibly complex and overwritten directives” which deterred business from creating new jobs.
“There are still people who think that the key to success is ever greater social protections and more regulations,” he said.
“Let’s be clear. We don’t protect workers by piling on the regulations and directives to such an extent that they become unemployable.”
A government-commissioned report, published in December, said fracking could have a negative environmental impact on the countryside, adversely affecting air quality, as well as putting pressure on water resources and increasing traffic congestion and noise.
Exploratory drilling for shale gas in Blackpool caused tremors - a very small earthquake - and this is likely to happen again if fracking resumes.
There are also fears that fracking could contaminate water supplies. High levels of pollution were found at Barnett Shale in Texas. Toxic substances, including arsenic, selenium and strontium, were discovered at higher levels than recommended.
Mr Cameron said the west was not facing “inevitable decline” and there was now an opportunity to “re-shore” jobs which had been “off-shored” to the east.
“Of course, we cannot be starry-eyed about globalisation – it presents huge challenges as our economies and societies try to adapt. But neither should we take this pessimistic view,” he said.
“Indeed, if we make the right decisions, we may also see more of what has been a small but discernible trend, where some jobs that were once off-shored are coming back from east to west.”
A Swedish MEP said Mr Cameron should tell his colleagues in the European parliament to be more constructive on regulation, rather than “undermining what everybody else is doing”.
He said his warnings about over-regulating shale gas were an example of the “very constructive role” played by British MEPs. What the EU needed was “practical, good, Conservative common sense”.
Where do the public stand?
People in Britain are in favour of fracking, according to a YouGov poll, as long as it does not take place near their homes.
A poll for the Sunday Times in December found that 44 per cent of people are in favour of fracking and 29 per cent against. It is seen as good for the economy by 64 per cent to 14 per cent and safe by 47 per cent to 33 per cent . But 42 per cent believe it is bad for the environment, against 34 per cent who believe it is not.
People are opposed to fracking happening close to them by 49 per cent to 24 per cent, but support it in their county, away from their homes, by 46 per cent to 29 per cent.