The government’s appeal to the UK’s oil and gas industry to boost production in the North Sea and the offer of financial sweeteners to do so has more than a slight air of desperation about it.
To be fair, ministers have not claimed extra barrels from the UK’s fields are going to send the price of petrol into reverse. That’s because they won’t and everyone connected with the industry knows it, no matter how welcome the government’s intervention might be.
The consequences of our heavy reliance on imported hydrocarbons are there for all to see. At the petrol pumps, in domestic gas bills, on company balance sheets — the squeeze is on.
This has dragged energy policy into the political centre stage. The problem is, issues that occupy that position tend to become prey to short-termism as politicians make decisions based on expediency rather than sound, considered judgement.
Short-term thinking is not what is required, because these problems are not going to go away. Gordon Brown was nearer the mark when he talked about the role of nuclear energy in providing a buffer for the UK against fluctuations in the global oil and gas markets.
The prime minister said the government’s previous ambitions for a new generation of nuclear power stations would need to be expanded. Without giving details (now there’s a surprise) Brown said it was ‘pretty clear’ that we are looking at more than a like-for-like replacement of today’s nuclear fleet.
He is right about that and, in an unfortunate coincidence of timing, the shortcomings of the existing nuclear infrastructure were thrown into sharp relief by enforced station shutdowns that caused serious disruptions to power supplies.
There are concerns that this will hamper efforts to sell British Energy, which operates the power stations. Attracting a buyer for BE is a key plank of the government’s plans for next generation nuclear, and the shutdowns highlight just how shaky a position we are in.
Laudably, the government wants to keep the taxpayer’s exposure to a minimum, but something so crucial to the nation’s future economic and social wellbeing cannot be allowed to be delayed too long by the machinations of the market. BE says it can carry on and build new nuclear stations without a big foreign backer. If one can be found, great. If not, it should do just that. Either way we need to get on with it. Time is not on our side.
Andrew Lee, editor
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