The idea that the UK’s energy supply is at risk has once again gained currency with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. While the narrative that energy supplies are of strategic importance is regularly trotted out by UK corporate energy interests for their own gain, the reason it is so successful goes beyond this. Here, Caroline Kuzemko explains why the narrative of energy insecurity has attained popular heights and outlines some of the implications of energy politicisation.
Alongside recent, tragic events in the Ukraine a narrative of energy supply insecurity has re-emerged in the UK. This narrative is pervasive and is based on the notion that the Ukrainian situation, and Russia’s actions, put gas supplies to Europe and the UK at risk – not least because over 80% of gas that travels from Russia to Europe does so via the Ukraine. Arguably, however, there is as much fear and sentiment at play here as there is concrete evidence that the UK’s energy supply is really at risk. Estimates are at best unclear about how much gas the UK actually imports from Russia, albeit the UK’s imports overall are growing and a supply shock might result in upward pressure on gas prices. That so many should ‘feel’ energy supplies to be threatened is, however, hardly surprising: spreading a narrative of supply insecurity fuels interests across the energy industry (fossil fuel but also renewable) and it is, as such, trotted out on a regular basis in order to raise the political profile of indigenous, or ‘home grown’, energy supplies.
A recent paper in the Policy & Politics journal attempts to explain why it is that this specific narrative is so successful beyond the observation that it plays into corporate interests. One way of understanding the success of these narratives lies in recognising their popular appeal. This is where the cognitive value of the specific securitising narrative comes into play. The notion that energy is both a powerful resource, that can be manipulated in order to gain advantage in international relations, and a national good, upon which production, technology and wellbeing depend, is common across nations. Common too is the notion that ‘others’ have the ability and desire to control access to energy – partly because traditional sources of inanimate energy (fossil fuels) are geographically fixed and finite in a world still divided by national boundaries. Popular film, video games and fiction are likewise littered with tales of dystopian futures in which there are very few resources left and those that remain are controlled by unsavoury countries or characters – thereby posing a real threat to survival of humankind.
Belief that access to energy supplies is important is further underpinned within this narrative by widespread (Cold War) ideas about Russia being the adversary of the West. Articles about Russia, energy, power and threat are popular in media circles – they readily get public exposure and this exposure is to an extent self-reinforcing. One example is the television programme ‘Have I Got News For You’ that features in the opening credits a picture of a Russian soldier turning the gas-pipeline to Europe off with a sly grin on his face. An evil master in control of ‘our’ (Europe’s) gas. The language used is often designed to further evoke fear and a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’, for example Russia is an ‘energy superpower’ that readily wields the ‘energy weapon’, with the UK as vulnerable and dependent. One corporate statement even holds out the possibility that the UK might, in future if things continue on the current track, need to declare a ‘state of emergency’.
Arguably recent, regular exposure to these arguments and imagery may have a bearing on our willingness to believe – but the energy security narrative clearly speaks and responds to pre-existing ideas about energy and Russia. What is important politically, however, is that by combining these two credible notions the results are fears that are often genuinely felt – energy security and Russian threat are now used commonly as if they are a current fact of life.
And so we return to the success of this narrative in politicising domestic, UK generated or produced, energy supply. Climate campaigners often refer to energy supply insecurity as a reason for investment in UK renewables and low carbon nuclear. The nuclear industry, never shy about letting a good energy crisis go to waste, has been active across Europe in using fear of Russia and the energy weapon to make the case for more European nuclear energy. Indeed, part of the UK’s arguments for building new nuclear facilities, despite the huge costs and state support involved, is the need to meet UK energy supply security objectives. The unconventional resources company, Cuadrilla, ably assisted by William Hague and Michael Fallon, have argued that the UK must reduce reliance on gas imports by fracking for domestic shale gas. Coincidentally shale has been labelled a ‘top priority’ by DECC and the Treasury and deals are being done with local authorities and communities in order to reduce opposition. Likewise North Sea Oil and Gas is being prioritised with the current government strategy being to maximise economic extraction. To facilitate this payable tax rates for gas and oil have been reduced, subsidies announced, and first National College for Oil and Gas and a new Oil and Gas Authority set up.
Politicising energy in this way has a few interesting implications for UK politics:
- By heavily emphasising and supporting domestic fossil fuels DECC is sending (at best) mixed messages about climate mitigation and the need to transition towards a low carbon, sustainable future;
- By (directly and indirectly) subsidising nuclear, oil and gas the ‘appropriate’ role of the state in the economy is called into question;
- Emphasis on more domestic supply as the answer to the UK’s energy problems runs counter to the argument that a greater emphasis on energy efficiency and demand reduction should be a priority in meeting climate change and affordability objectives, as well as energy security.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Scott Wylie CC BY 2.0
Caroline Kuzemko is Research Fellow at the University of Exeter. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for the Studiy of Globalisation and Regionalisation (CSGR) at the University of Warwick.