This is anything but a 'no change reshuffle' for green businesses, some important questions need answering
Yesterday's reshuffle has resulted in a major change in personnel amongst ministers with environmental responsibilities, but what do the changes mean for the green economy? There are several questions that green businesses and investors will want answered as soon as possible.
Is Environment Secretary Owen Paterson sceptical about the scientific consensus on climate change?
Within minutes of his appointment being announced the Twitter meme had started suggesting the new Environment Secretary is not only hostile to green campaigners, but is also sceptical about the case for urgent action to tackle climate change. Like so many internet tropes it was difficult to ascertain where the rumour started.
There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest Paterson is not exactly signed up to the green growth agenda, ranging from his vocal support for shale gas projects to his hostility to wind farms and his apparent reluctance to engage with environmental groups. Moreover, he was immediately praised by prominent climate sceptics Lord Lawson and James Delingpole, adding further grist to the mill of those who would characterise him as "climate sceptic".
However, these endorsements could have as much to do with Paterson's right-wing record than his views on the changing nature of the climate and regardless of his personal views he is taking the reins at a department that is responsible for climate science and adaptation. Green groups are hoping that evidence and pragmatism will force Paterson to shelve any ideological hostility he has towards environmental causes, but if he wants to get off on a good foot with Defra's stakeholders he needs to clarify whether he regards addressing climate change as a priority or a distraction. It has now been over five hours since various members of the media requested a statement on Paterson's stance on climate change – so far, nothing has been forthcoming.
How will Paterson marry pro shale gas stance with environmental concerns?
Like so many other aspects of the energy industry, shale gas is much easier to support in the theory than in the actuality. Paterson's support for shale gas as a source of economic growth and cheap energy is about to crash up against the reality of being responsible for the regulation and policing of a fledgling industry with a dubious environmental track record in the US.
The big question is how Paterson proposes to support shale gas projects, while overcoming the inevitable Home Counties protests at earthquake-causing drilling activity and the legal challenges when and if something goes wrong?
Is new Energy Minister John Hayes opposed to all wind farms or just the ones in his constituency?
A quick internet search confirms new Energy Minister John Hayes has expended considerable energy in the past campaigning against proposed wind farms in his Lincolnshire constituency. As a result there are plenty of quotes in the digital archives detailing his belief that wind turbines have a "detrimental impact" on local communities and cause "increases [in] the average household energy bills as the profit-hungry energy companies continue to chase the taxpayer-funded subsidies".
But at the same time he is also on record as supporting increased investment in renewable energy, arguing in favour of the green economy, and making the case for green skills development during his time as Skills Minister.
The renewables industry will be desperate to find out if Hayes' opposition to wind farms extends beyond his constituency boundaries. Is he opposed to wind farms in principle or does he support those developments that are deemed to be appropriately located? The Lib Dems reversal on nuclear policy shows personal U-turns are possible once ministers are given responsibility for the energy brief and are forced to come to terms with the twin challenges of decarbonisation and energy security. But wind farm developers will want to see Hayes' position clarified sooner rather than later.
What, if anything, does the reshuffle mean for the Energy Bill?
Whitehall watchers were shocked by the departure of Charles Hendry as Energy Minister, but should they have been? He was almost universally liked and admired, but he was also the minister most closely linked to an Energy Bill that has been attacked from all sides and was recently described by MPs as "unworkable".
DECC was quick to stress this morning that the department remains fully committed to delivering the bill and the electricity market reform it enables. But Hendry's departure surely makes it easier for last-minute changes to the bill to be made. The big question is whether Hayes will undertake the minor tinkering favoured by the Lib Dems or seek more dramatic changes? The imminent coalition row over whether the bill should include a 2030 decarbonisation target for the electricity sector that limits new gas capacity investment just got even more intriguing.
Where does the Prime Minister stand on the green economy?
From an energy and environmental perspective Labour is premature to suggest this is a "no-change reshuffle". The axing of anti-Heathrow expansion ministers from the Department for Transport and Paterson's environmentally dubious track record suggest we could yet see a significant shift in the government's approach to the green economy at the half-way stage of the parliament, even if the Lib Dems vow to fight any anti-environmental measures all the way to the 2015 polling station.
You just have to look at the round-up of the environmental and energy implications from news agency Reuters to see the impression Cameron has created for international low carbon investors. "Britain sent a clear signal of support to its oil and gas industry when it named an advocate of shale gas fracking as environment minister and a wind farm sceptic as energy minister," the story starts. "The appointments in Prime Minister David Cameron's ministerial reshuffle on Tuesday mark a departure from his pledge to run Britain's greenest government, in favour of the fossil fuel sector that generates billions of pounds in tax revenue."
The only person who can correct this impression, if indeed it needs to be corrected, is David Cameron.
Having downgraded his promised speech on the green economy to a few short comments, now more than ever low carbon business leaders need to hear where the Prime Minister stands on the crucial topic of green growth. If he continues to remain silent, then green-minded Tories, Lib Dems, and Labour should all crank up pressure on Cameron over his apparent willingness to undermine growth industries that enjoy substantial public support.
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