News Column

Comment: Fracking for the many: The UK's oil wealth was exploited for the benefit of the few. We have to avoid that with shale gas

September 5, 2014

Guy Standing Guy Standing is professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and author of A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens

Fracking should be a defining issue in the general election. We should work hard to make sure it isn't a footnote. If the scale of gas is anything like the claims made by its advocates, it has major implications for the economy and British society. Besides its worrying environmental aspects, it could have adverse effects on income distribution.

Recall that governments recklessly mishandled North Sea (or Scottish) oil, virtually giving away public resources to an elite. Norway, on the other hand, had the wisdom to establish a public petrol fund, which evolved into the country's sovereign wealth fund, by which all Norwegians, for generations to come, are the beneficiaries. Today, every Norwegian is effectively a millionaire.

It is too early to suggest that fracking offers anything like that. But it is time to be prepared for any eventuality. The coalition government's plans for fracking are a licence to legalised corruption. Those Tory balls described in the Guardian recently showed that representatives of the industry are big Conservative donors. Will they want nothing in return?

The government is giving public subsidies to fracking firms, backed up by pounds 100,000 "bribes" to local authorities to let them frack in their areas. Rather than an independent commission determining whether drilling should take place, these decisions are to be made by Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, who hardly seems an unbiased person. There is an obvious conflict of interest.

That aside, the reserves - regardless of size - do not belong to Pickles or anybody else to give away. They are public, common wealth which should not be converted into private riches. This is where Labour and Greens, and anybody calling themselves progressive, should make a stand. All should state unequivocally that if fracking is to go ahead - and many of us remain opposed - then the people of this country should be the primary beneficiaries and decision-makers, not a plutocracy and a few multinational corporations. No fracking without representation.

A democratically governed national fracking fund should be set up, perhaps similar to what Norway and Alaska have. Areas of drilling should be rented to companies through public tender, with or without subsidies, and a rising share of profits beyond a negotiated upper limit should be deposited in the national capital fund. The proceeds should be invested in ecological and socially desirable investments, and after five years the proceeds should yield an annual social dividend payable to every resident of the UK. Something like this operates in Alaska, and took it from most unequal to most equal American state.

Rightwing critics might cavil that this would amount to "giving something for nothing". But this is what those who inherit wealth obtain; they have not done a day's labour for it. They gain a lot for doing nothing, and the inheritance of wealth is a growing source of inequality.

At the moment, there are no levers to check the growing inequality. Capital is taxed much less than labour; subsidies going to capital, the rich and middle-income earners greatly exceed the benefits going to the precariat and underclass. A national capital fund, allied with a social dividend scheme, would be one lever to redress the imbalance.

There are details to be worked out, but what is crucial now is that progressive parties tell us what they would do if fracking goes ahead. Does Labour have the courage and intellect to try to make this a major issue in the election? If not, we will know that it does not want to talk about big ideas, or to respond to structural inequality and the shrinking common wealth.

Guy Standing is professor of development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and author of A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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