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Carbon Brief Staff

04.09.2012 | 4:30pm
ScienceWith a coalition fight brewing over energy policy, meet Owen Paterson, your new environment secretary
SCIENCE | September 4. 2012. 16:30
With a coalition fight brewing over energy policy, meet Owen Paterson, your new environment secretary

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has a limited role in climate policy. Probably the most important part of Defra’s climate remit is to manage the UK’s flood defences. 

But with Liberal Democrat Ed Davey safely installed at the head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), other Lib Dems making irritated noises about the Treasury’s influence over the government’s environmental policies, and an autumn which will see the next stage of the energy bill’s development, the government’s environmental direction is up for grabs. So it’s worth paying attention to Owen Paterson, the new secretary of state for environment, and Davey’s counterpart at Defra.

Paterson’s been shuffled in to replace Caroline Spelman, who has been shuffled off into the middle distance. He’s the Conservative MP for North Shropshire, and up until today, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

So what are his views on climate change?

Although Paterson has expressed some views that might chime with climate skeptics, it’s not certain yet where his views on climate change lie.

Paterson comes pre-approved by such luminaries of the climate skeptic world as James Delingpole, who calls him “an energetic and articulate opponent of wind farm development”.

On Twitter, it was pointed out that the grandfather figure of UK climate skeptics, Nigel Lawson, endorsed him on Sky News, while being careful to make no comment whatsoever on Paterson’s views:

Q to Lawson: ‘Do u like Paterson b/c he’s a climate skeptic like u?’ Lawson: ‘Yes, he’s a man of sense+reason’

In addition, Paterson’s brother-in-law is – oddly – science writer and climate skeptic Matt Ridley. But if you have experience of difficult in-laws, you’ll perhaps resist jumping to conclusions.

But what does the man himself think? Until someone gets him on record, we can only speculate. As Guardian editor, Adam Vaughan, writes:

“Where has this meme that Owen Paterson is a climate skeptic come from? Just ’cause Lawson says he likes him, doesn’t make him climate sceptic.”

And a look at Paterson’s website shows him arguing that the Conservatives should be:

“…a party that will not duck the long-term challenges we face – be they climate change, fixing our broken society or repairing the economic mess that Gordon Brown has created through his debt-fuelled recklessness.”

According to the website theyworkforyou, which tracks politicians’ voting records, he has:

“Voted ‘moderately for’ laws to stop climate change.”

And energy policy?

Paterson is no fan of wind power. According to his blog in 2008:

“Owen said ‘£10 billion is the same amount that it would cost to build seven new nuclear power stations, which would deliver exactly the same amount of power as the installed capacity of the 7,000 wind turbines. The Government seems to be telling us that just to connect 7,000 wind turbines to the grid will cost more than it would to generate the same amount of energy from nuclear power stations. This is before we take into account the enormous cost of building the turbines.

‘I will be tabling further questions to try to clarify the answers I have received so far. The above information is astonishing and clearly vindicates VORTEX and other campaigners in Shropshire opposed to wind farms which are clearly a massive waste of consumers’ money.'”

In a lengthy letter written in the same year, he lays out his views in more detail, criticising government energy policy and claiming windpower is not fit for purpose – he claims “reliance on wind power would actually lead to an increase in [carbon] emissions”.

Conversely, he seems to be enthusiastic about shale gas:

“We have one unexpected and potentially huge windfall: the chance to develop shale gas. The USA, with its “can do” culture, has taken full advantage of its shale gas deposits and has not just halved the price of gas – it’s now a quarter of that here – but has also ended America’s dependence on unreliable and dictatorial regimes. Incredibly, the USA may become a net energy exporter. There are huge deposits in Northern Ireland which may be commercially exploitable. Of course we must respect environmental considerations, but some of the opposition has been, frankly, alarmist and has ignored the American experience. If developed safely and responsibly, shale gas could generate massive economic activity and a wealth of new jobs.”

And he’s not a fan of that other bête noire of anti-windfarm campaigners, electricity pylons. According to the Telegraph:

“There was a lively discussion regarding proposed wind farms in Mid Wales and National Grid’s project to link them to the main national network by crossing Shropshire. The Members of Parliament made clear the strong objections of their constituents to the plans.”

While according to blog ConservativeHome, he has called for the:

“Ending of all energy subsidies and then fast-tracked exploitation of shale gas”.

It’s probably a safe bet he doesn’t mean subsidies for fossil fuels – like shale gas.

Defra has a much wider remit than climate change, and Paterson will have to deal with controversial issues like badger culling, perhaps the hunting ban, how and whether to place economic value on the natural environment, and farming.

But with a wider fight over energy and environment going on in the coalition government, it’s interesting that Paterson – an anti-wind, pro-shale gas MP who comes pre-approved by the climate skeptics – has been brought in to head the ‘other’ environment department.

H/t to @dpcarrington @lukerigg @martynwilliams2 @dderbyshire @leohickman for some of the links cited in this piece.

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