Later this month Lancashire County Council will finally decide whether exploration for onshore gas can go ahead at two sites in the county.

We know what a group of protesters feel about the idea. They have attracted widespread media coverage for their opposition activities in Lancashire and Salford. But do they speak for the majority of people in the county and beyond?

Centrica Energy is bringing together a panel of guests next Wednesday to take part in a live debate on the role of gas in the region. The panel members are all in favour of the go ahead but I will be the independent chair and all views are welcome. The phone in will take place on Wed June 10th at 5pm and anyone wanting to take part or find out more should register at

There are believed to be trillions of cubic feet of shale gas under Lancashire. To get it energy firms would need to use a process called fracking. Water and chemicals are pumped into shale rock at high pressure to extract the gas.

Centrica holds a 25% stake in energy company Cuadrilla’s Bowland exploration licence which will soon be determined by Lancashire councillors. They have a difficult decision because opponents have dominated the debate spurred on by the so called Blackpool earthquake in 2011, TV pictures from America showing tap water being set on fire and a belief that we should be cutting our dependence on carbon based fuel due to global warming.

Councillors also will have in mind that their planning officers initially recommended that the drilling applications be refused. Crucially however their objections related to surface noise and traffic movements. They gave the green light to the drilling operation. Cuadrilla hope they have addressed those issues now.

There is the positive case for fracking in a county that has been meeting the nation’s energy needs since the days of the Lancashire coalfield. Heysham provided one of the first nuclear power stations and for thirty years offshore gas has been extracted from Morecambe Bay.

The UK is facing a potential energy crisis due to the closure of old nuclear plant, environmental limits on burning coal and a growing reluctance to rely on Russia for gas supplies. Our margins are slim and could be severely tested during a hard winter.

There is also the potential for extra jobs at companies like Centrica who already employ 5,000 people in the North West supporting 10,000 people in the supply chain.

I look forward to hearing your views next Wednesday at 5pm.


I reported on the former Lib Dem leader in his good times and his bad. His opposition to the Iraq War seems more justified every day that ISIS advances across Syria and Iraq.

He was the only Lib Dem MP to vote against his party going into coalition with the Tories in 2010. As they sit in parliament with their eight members now, perhaps he was right about that too.

My last interview with him at a Southport conference in 2005 was not a happy experience. He was clearly struggling with his alcohol problems and I prefer to remember his sunny smile and firm convictions.

Follow me at




Is the extraction of shale gas part of the answer to our looming energy gap, or a potential environmental disaster in our crowded island?


Opposition to fracking is rising as demonstrations from Blackpool in Lancashire to Balcombe in Sussex have shown. The government meanwhile seems determined to press ahead with exploratory licensing despite the fact that we are in the run up to a General Election.


The fracking controversy is coming to a head because Britain is facing an energy gap. Coal is a declining source of energy. Old nuclear power stations are being decommissioned and negotiations with energy companies about the strike price for new plants are lengthy. Fears about nuclear power after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents left politicians reluctant to invest in new plants around the turn of the century. UK natural gas production has been declining at 8% a year since 2000. Despite government support for renewables, the fact remains that water, wind and bio-energy account for a small percentage of our energy supply.


Then there is Russia. Recent events have increased a desire for the EU and the UK to be less dependent on Vladimir Putin’s gas and coal.




The process of fracking extracts gas from shale rock by pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into fissures one or two miles down. The gas and waste water then flow up to the surface.

The chemicals used are commercially confidential and that has proved controversial with environmentalists.


Estimates vary as to how much shale gas there is under the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggested that fracking could deliver 25% of the UK’s gas needs by the middle of the next decade. Other experts feel it will take much longer for shale gas to be produced in volume and that cheaper Russian gas will continue to be attractive. Indeed a key question will be the impact of shale gas on household bills.


The American experience looms large. There has been a 75% increase in United States natural gas reserves due to fracking. Gas prices have reduced from $12 to $3 per million British thermal units By 2020 the US will be exporting gas. However whilst states like Pennsylvania have embraced fracking, New York maintains a moratorium. Also when comparing the US with the UK, the major issue of population density must be taken into consideration. Another important difference is that American landowners own the mineral rights beneath their land whereas here they are the property of the Crown.


Currently there is a promise that £100,000 plus 1% of total revenues will be paid to local communities where fracking takes place. The question is will this be enough to buy off residents who fear groundwater contamination, methane leakage and incessant tanker movements on country lanes? The government insists that a tough regulatory regime will be in place and cite the cautious approach Ministers have taken so far. That includes a moratorium on test drilling when it was suggested that natural seismic movements under Blackpool might have been caused by exploratory work.


The conference will be held eight months before the General Election. Some of the most promising shale gas fields are under marginal constituencies in the North and the fracking debate could well become an election issue. Claims for the level of public support for fracking vary widely. An industry commissioned opinion poll claimed recently that opposition was down to 24%. A poll for the Guardian and Nottingham University suggested the nation is split fifty fifty.


However enthusiastic national government is to press on with fracking, it is local councillors who have to give planning permission. Some are questioning their expertise to make such crucial decisions.


On this crowded island fracking pitches local communities and environmentalists against those with responsibility for keeping the lights on.




A month ago the Philippines was devastated by one of the most powerful storms ever. These catastrophic events are becoming more frequent as climate change fuels our weather system with more and more energy.


You’d think that husky driver Dave would get it, realising that before long he won’t be able to use the Arctic for photo opportunities because there won’t be any ice to slide on.


But no, in the face of understandable anger about rocketing energy prices Mr Cameron and many other political leaders have ditched the green agenda and reverted to short term measures that may please the voters but will do little to save the planet.


Tory Ministers claim they are still committed to the “Vote Blue Get Green” strategy from 2010 and the Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey says his party is still making a green difference in the Coalition, but the facts say otherwise. The Green Deal has had a very poor take up, mainly because households investing in it see their savings being used to pay the interest charges on energy saving installations.


Then there is the insulation programme which is now going to be rolled out over a longer time span. However Ministers want to dress it up, that means a delay in making more homes energy efficient.


It looks as if “ditch the green crap” is going to be the underlying sentiment as we approach the next election. We should not be surprised. Good green policies are very difficult for politicians because they require long term vision. They’ll all be dead before monster typhoons are constantly ravaging the tropics and the polar ice is gone. Come to think of it the Palace of Westminster will have gone to a watery grave as well.


The energy companies are getting nervous. They are the new bankers, the greedy fat cats that everyone loves to hate. Many of the criticisms of the energy firms is justified but they are the ones who have to invest in our non carbon energy future. The press they are now getting and the political pressure (like Ed Miliband’s price freeze) is hardly going to encourage them to take extra investment risks.


A massive off shore wind project was cancelled in the Bristol Channel recently. The official reason was that the physical challenges were too great. I’m not so sure. The word is going round that the steam has gone out of the green agenda.


The energy companies have seen Ministers ease their green obligations and there is speculation that the latter will be back for more. It is suggested that among their targets are further cuts in the Energy Company Obligation, a review of the smart metering scheme and scrapping the carbon emission floor price that currently helps keep the cost of nuclear and renewable energy cheaper.


Let’s never forget that there are big job opportunities in a proper green agenda. Take for example the insulation industry. Those involved have not been slow to recognise the implications of the politicians panic.


We need a consistent long term energy policy involving nuclear, fracking and renewables. Unpopular decisions have to be taken by courageous politicians with vision. Something sorely lacking at the moment.






When we booked John Major to speak to us parliamentary journalists this week we were expecting some gentle reflections on his time in office in the nineties. Perhaps some thoughts about his predecessor Margaret Thatcher being a back seat driver or about the soapbox he used in 1992 to deliver the Conservatives last General Election victory.


But no, the former Prime Minister decided to wade into the energy debate with a call for a windfall tax on the energy companies. It was a reminder to all that the man who won a fourth term for the Conservatives is still around. He rarely makes speeches and generally avoids embarrassing the government but it was clear from listening to him that he was getting a lot off his chest.




But to return to the hot political topic of the moment, energy. I thought I’d ask Mr Major if he felt any responsibility for the current crisis. After all it is the long term failure of successive government to invest in our energy infrastructure that has left us with a perfect storm. Coal and old nuclear power plants closing, the increasing need to import expensive gas and rocketing bills.


Major’s government was in office about half way between 1961 when Britain opened its first commercial nuclear plant (and led the world with the technology) and 2023 when the Hinckley Point station announced this week will come on line. The early nineties would have been the time to plan for the future given the long investment lead times needed. With the frankness only available to an elder statesman John Major told me that he was “happy to admit to a million errors and failing to do anything about civil nuclear power was one of them.”


One can admire his honesty but be appalled either at the short sightedness of our energy planners or the cowardice of our politicians in the face of voters fears about nuclear leaks or spending money on projects that would not bring short term electoral advantage.


Anyway the new nuclear programme is now under way with the Chinese and French in charge. It should mean plenty of work for us in the north of England where many of the skills are located. Let’s hope the waste issue has been thoroughly thought through this time as we continue to incur the massive decommissioning costs of the old nuclear industry.




Apart from energy we were treated at the lunch to some old fashioned one nation Toryism. Mr Major declared that his party would never fight back in Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool by pandering to its core vote. He referred to the “silent have nots, I know them, I grew up with them.” He mentioned “lace curtain poverty” and said Tory policy had to be addressed to them.


His time as Prime Minister was undermined by Euro sceptic rebels headed by the current Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. He criticised the way he was handling the benefit reforms.


In an unguarded moment in 1995 he had called some of his Cabinet colleagues “bastards”. Getting years of frustration off his chest he told us on Tuesday “it was true, they were.”


He ended with a defence of our membership of the European Union that Ted Heath would have been proud of.


We may not hear from John Major again for some time but his words will need to be heeded by David Cameron who most of the time is being pressed to the right.