OPINION: The situation in Russia highlights importance of self sufficiency

Tom Hunt looks at the cost of living crisis in his latest opinion column.

Tom Hunt looks at the cost of living crisis in his latest opinion column. - Credit: Tom Hunt/Archant

The cost of living is a subject which is increasingly being raised with me by my constituents.

With energy costs, gas prices, and energy security on the minds of many of us, I wanted to dedicate my column this week to thinking about how the UK can lay out a pragmatic roadmap to becoming self sufficient, and less reliant on fossil fuels - with a strategy that is acutely sensitive to geopolitical
realities.

We don’t need to read the news to realise that energy bills have been climbing, or that petrol and diesel have been getting much more expensive. Petrol has been hitting record high prices, at 165.3p
per litre and it now costs £97 to fill up a diesel car.

Energy bills are a serious concern for most of us, which is why the chancellor has announced the £350 package to help families manage against these increases – and I personally hope that we will see more measures announced in the upcoming Spring budget.

The energy market is known to be volatile, and it is always difficult to predict how the wholesale
price of energy will move, but over the last six months it has been even more unpredictable than
usual. On top of this, the geopolitical situation between Ukraine and Russia has put significant pressure on the global energy markets.

The tensions between Russia and the West, and the horrific scenes we are seeing in Ukraine, demonstrate just how important it is that we do not rely on such ‘rogue regimes’ for our energy security. Russia is a huge exporter of oil and gas, and Europe is a key market.

In fact, in 2021, half of the crude oil exported by Russia went to Europe. We need to find a way to avoid being dependent on a country like Russia for imports of oil and gas.

While Europe in general is heavily reliant on Russia for energy, the UK is in a unique, less severe,
position.

The primary European consumers of Russian oil are Germany and the Netherlands, but only
3% of the UK’s gas is from Russia.

Nevertheless, the current situation with Russia demonstrates how essential it is that both the UK and Europe are able to be self-sufficient. The Prime Minister is right to say the West needs to end their ‘addiction’ to Russian energy; as a continent, we need to insulate ourselves better from this dependence.

This week, the Prime Minister said he would be removing barriers to using domestic sources like the
North Sea. Importantly, we have to be led by the science here, as we look to gas exploration in the North Sea, using nuclear energy, and the potential for shale gas.

We need to lay out a strategy to be self-sufficient in energy production, while developing a clear
roadmap towards our objective of using cleaner, renewable energy sources. Most importantly, we
need this transition to be practical – and one which works. It is no good having an overly ambitious
programme if this is unachievable and results in panic, reliance on ‘rogue regimes’, or impoverishes
our country.

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Unfortunately, the UK has not got a head start when it comes to investing in nuclear. In the Labour
party manifesto of 1997, the party spouted an unequivocally anti-nuclear energy stance which has
set us a decade behind in terms of investing in this source of sustainable and domestically produced
energy.

This anti-nuclear stance of the late 20th century has contributed to the problem we find
ourselves in now. However, the tide on this is turning – in the chamber this week, Labour’s Ed
Miliband urged the government to ‘move forward’ with nuclear (despite the Labour administration
finding ‘no economic case’ for investment in nuclear energy previously).

Even the green party in Germany, which is historically vehemently anti-nuclear, is reconsidering their policy. When it comes to nuclear power locally, there has been debate about Suffolk’s Sizewell C and whether is the right thing to do or not. I would think that the recent developments lend some weight to the argument.

In the immediate term, we need to look at what we can do to help families currently struggling with
paying their energy bills and fuel costs. This is why I have signed a letter from MPs calling for the fuel
duty to be cut.

I also think that, if there is any chance to provide additional support for hard pressed consumers, the
Chancellor should do so in his upcoming budget. While public finances have been severely damaged
by the pandemic, if there is any space to help out the families who are struggling to make ends meet
due to the fuel and energy price increases, this should be a priority.

I also think that energy companies themselves could be handling the situation with more sensitivity,
particularly when it comes to how consumers are treated.

Even though most families are expecting bills to go up, some constituents have contacted me with terrible stories of just how poor and distressing customer service has been.

Companies should be dealing with people in a humane and a sensitive way, particularly in a time like this. Being on hold for hours, when some call centres are not even in the UK and know nothing about our energy market, is completely unacceptable.

At the end of the day, the situation with Russia highlights how important it is that we are self sufficient when it comes to energy.

This shows that we should be looking at sources like the North Sea, nuclear, and potentially shale gas to safeguard our energy sources.

When it comes to cutting carbon emissions, we should be aiming to move away from fossil fuels completely – but we need a pragmatic roadmap to do so which means we are not hitting hard-pressed taxpayers’ pockets.