SNP to chair Energy Select Committee: What will this mean for UK energy policy

With the election of the SNP chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee next week, NNWE’s chairman, himself former chair of the EEC Select Committee, considers the implications for New Nuclear and energy policy in general

 

There is speculation today that SNP’s Angus MacNeil is expected to take up the position of chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee next week on June 17. But, as its former chair myself, I believe the recent surprise decision to hand the committee to the Scottish Nationalists might turn out to be a smart calculation by the Government despite the conflicts between its plans and key parts of the SNP energy policy.

Whoever is elected chair next week will immediately be on a collision course on several fronts with Energy Secretary Amber Rudd who herself has had barely a month to get used to her modest Whitehall office.

Firstly the Government wants to cut Britain’s growing dependence on imported gas by using fracking to exploit potentially significant shale gas reserves. Its desire to do so will have been increased by having to approve Centrica’s recent gas import contract with Gazprom and by the Energy Committee’s conclusion in the last Parliament that, properly regulated, fracking poses no environmental or health dangers.

However the SNP opposes the deployment of this controversial technology. It might use the Committee chairmanship to build an anti-fracking coalition with Tory and Labour Committee MPs running scared of local opposition and thereby make trouble for the Government.

Secondly onshore wind where the Government has said enough is enough in contrast to the SNP who want more. It’s extremely unlikely that any Tories will depart from the party line but that won’t stop the SNP asking why a Government rightly determined to get value for money is turning its back on one of the cheaper forms of low carbon energy while heavily subsidising expensive offshore wind farms and tidal lagoons.

Thirdly nuclear power where the SNP’s hostility is long standing. This isn’t an immediate area of conflict because the first few nuclear power stations will be built in England and Wales. However nuclear is a key component in the Government’s chosen energy mix and it both improves security of supply and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.

Nuclear policy will be back in the headlines soon if Areva doesn’t solve the problems threatening the Hinkley Point project. Alternative, possibly cheaper, nuclear technologies exist but adopting them requires hard choices about how far Britain is willing to embrace investors from outside the EU, something which the SNP might resist.

Fourthly the SNP supports a more urgent and bigger scale response to the growing challenge of climate change. As the science grows ever more compelling and the relentless rise in global average temperature becomes undeniable by even the most determined climate sceptics the issue will be hard to ignore.

It is this last difficulty which may explain why putting the SNP in charge of the Energy Committee may be more cunning than appears at first sight. The new Government will be confident of getting its way on fracking, wind and nuclear, whatever objections are raised by the SNP or the diminished Labour and Liberal Democrat parties.

Climate change presents a more subtle problem. Some Tory backbenchers are at best lukewarm about whether Britain should remain in the vanguard of EU countries calling for an intensified global response. Allowing the Energy Committee to be chaired by a Tory climate sceptic like Peter Lilley, capable of teaming up with Labour doubters like Graham Stringer, could have led to it being a source of embarrassment to the Government.

That possibility has been averted. Instead we can expect some old fashioned partisan battles between government backbenchers on one side and Labour/SNP on the other. Gone will be the careful evidence based collegiate recommendations which made the Committee’s reports in the last Parliament so influential.

That loss may however be a price worth paying if it prevents a Parliamentary Select Committee from becoming a vehicle for people bent on ignoring the science and shutting their eyes to the huge environmental and economic benefits of accelerating Britain’s progress towards the prize of being one of the world’s first true low carbon economies.