The benefits were obvious. If we could liberate the shale gas beneath us, then we would lessen our dependence on supplies from Russia and the Middle East. We would be able to cut fuel prices for hard-pressed consumers. We would be able to cut energy costs for British industry, so accelerating that exciting process of “reshoring” manufacturing, and rediscovering our identity as one of the world’s great centres of high-value production. We would be able to use the gas – much cleaner than coal – while we sorted out our chaotic energy supply. We would be able to invest in some serious nuclear power plants, and some proper renewable energy, other than those ludicrous wind farms. All we needed to do, as everyone kept saying in those dim, distant days, was to “get fracking”.
What is the problem? Well, of course, it is the bureaucracy, the protests, the general bad vibe that is associated with fracking, and the hostility of anyone who thinks they might be living in the vicinity of a well.
But there is one decisive difference between Britain and America – and it has nothing to do with our respective cultures of enterprise. Nor is it really about bureaucracy. As anyone who has lived in America can testify, it is just about the most heavily regulated country on earth. No: the big difference is that in America the landholder has the rights to all the minerals beneath – all the way to the centre of the earth. Here, the rights to gas and oil are vested with the Crown.
To understand this anomaly, you need to go back 100 years to the time when UK legislators were first considering what was then viewed as the remote possibility that the country might be endowed with significant reserves of oil and gas. They had seen what was happening in America, and – as today – there was a vague attempt to get at Britain’s resources. The trouble was that nobody had found much, and when they had found something there was an instant wrangle between adjacent property-owners. One owner would claim that the other had siphoned off the oil beneath his property, and that he had not been properly compensated. The result was that no one could be bothered even to try to get at British oil – if there was any.
So, in 1919, the then minister for munitions, Frederick Kellaway, decided that “it would be an almost insoluble problem to devise any equitable scheme for the allocation of royalties as between neighbouring landowners, owing to the relatively small size of estates in this country, and the impossibility of determining from what point in a petroliferous area the supply tapped by any boring is actually drawn”. So he came up with what he thought was the equitable solution of assigning all such rights to the Crown.
That was the origin of the 1934 Petroleum (Production) Act, which forms the basis of the present law. It was intended, paradoxically, to encourage extraction at a time when it seemed a fairly hopeless venture. Today, when we have actually found the stuff – and when it is much easier to tell precisely where and beneath whose land it is located – the measure is causing paralysis. The result is that no landowner, large or small, has any automatic commercial interest in the discovery of shale gas beneath their property. No wonder the shires are in revolt against fracking. It is no surprise that everyone is a Numby when they are told that what is under their back yard is not theirs, but belongs to the Queen!
It is time for a simple and profoundly Conservative – not to say Thatcherian – change to the law. People have the rights to any diamonds or platinum or uranium they may excavate beneath their homes. Why shouldn’t they have the right to the one mineral that may – it now transpires – exist in glorious abundance? Her Majesty the Queen is absolutely magnificent in every respect, but she has oodles of land already. It is time to give the Numbies a stake in the matter. Give the British people their mineral rights, and get fracking at last.