Is Boris Johnson getting right on energy?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a news conference March 24 at the end of a meeting of Group of Seven (G7) leaders at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels.


Stephanie Lecocq/Shutterstock

A wave of energy realism is sweeping across Europe, and Britain will be the next country to be soaked in it. In recent weeks Prime Minister Boris Johnson has rediscovered the virtues of his country’s domestic energy sources, and not a moment too soon.

Great Britain was already suffering from an energy price emergency before Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. The statutory cap on household electricity and natural gas prices, which is adjusted twice a year to reflect market conditions, is set to rise by 54% in early April. This will add £693 ($915) to the annual bill of an average household, even if inflation spikes for everything else.

Anyone who has to drive pays a lot more as unleaded petrol prices have risen about 35% over the past year and diesel prices have risen about 42%. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that a typical small business with premises in London has seen its electricity bill rise by 145% and its gas bill by 258% over the past year.

Mr Johnson and his Tory colleagues in government are fond of reminding voters that Britain, unlike Germany and Italy, imports relatively little of its fuel from Russia. But that hasn’t protected the country from global price swings triggered by the Ukraine war and other countries’ sudden search for alternative suppliers.

Instead, long-running climate policy – on which Mr Johnson has doubled down – makes matters much worse. Successive Prime Ministers have stepped up exploration in the North Sea, culminating in the recent renaming of the Oil and Gas Authority as the North Sea Transitional Authority. Britain could have started using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) technology years ago to extract natural gas from the north of England. The Greens blocked the drilling until conservative politicians lost interest.

At least a few scales have fallen belatedly from their eyes in the past month. Mr Johnson is now promising, despite the predictable green objections, to move quickly on new licenses for North Sea exploration. He wants to increase investment in nuclear power, which has been declining in Britain for decades. But fracking appears to be off the table for now, despite calls from members of Mr Johnson’s cabinet, such as Secretary of State Liz Truss, to use this apparent source of energy.

The Prime Minister is also sticking to the net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target that has put Britain in this bind. His enthusiasm for sun and wind ignores how unreliable these supplies are on dark, still nights. Political hostility to fossil fuels threatens to prevent further investment in domestic manufacturing as companies fear sentiment could change once the Ukraine crisis is over.

Net Zero is a wish, not an energy security strategy. Other governments in Europe are reluctantly making their peace with this reality and responding accordingly. The political danger for Mr Johnson is that if he refuses to do the same, voters will eventually look for a leader to do so.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews Jillian Melchior, editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Images: Reuters Composite: Mark Kelly

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