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Frack for good

Fracking is back. Yesterday, energy secretary Ed Davey announced that the temporary ban on shale gas drilling, brought in last year after minor tremors were detected at the UK’s first exploratory fracking site in Lancashire, was to be lifted but that new controls were to be brought in to ensure public and environmental safety.

Predictable cheers went up from the gas lobby and equally predictable boos came from environmentalists. It’s no wonder hydraulic fracturing is divisive and controversial: its rapid expansion in the US has led to plummeting energy prices and has the potential to help cut carbon emissions in the short term by replacing dirtier coal; but it has also led to reports of severe water, land and air pollution, claims from those living near drilling sites that their livelihoods and health are being destroyed, and fears that cheap gas will wed the world even more strongly to climate change-inducing fossil fuels.

Fracking in Lancashire was rightly halted because of fears it was causing earthquakes, but there are also questions over what can happen when potentially harmful chemicals are pumped into the ground at high pressure and how it might end up allowing methane to escape into the atmosphere (so-called fugitive emissions).

But those who drafted a report on fracking for the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering have broadly welcomed the controls and monitoring requirements introduced by the government to prevent the process from becoming an environmental disaster. If enforced properly, these will hopefully prevent the UK from experiencing the same problems as the US, where regulation is patchy to say the least.

Ed Davey admitted that limit of seismic activity allowed under the new controls has deliberately been cautiously low. Third party inspections will be mandatory to ensure well integrity. And unlike in parts of the US, companies wishing to frack will have to publicly register the chemicals they are using and will not be able to use substances deemed hazardous to the water supply.

Perhaps with these guidelines in place, Britain will develop a safe new domestic source of gas, which realistically is going to be used for heating if not electricity generation for decades to come. It’s not often you hear businesses welcoming regulation but even those within the industry are known to speak with pride of Britain’s high safety standards in the oil and gas sector.

Combined with our existing expertise in drilling, sensible shale development could create a new exportable industry in which the UK can become a European and even world leader. If we halt exploration altogether then other countries will overtake us, as they already have in wind, solar and (as it increasingly appears) carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Decarbonising our economy is essential but getting there won’t be an easy task. The intermittency and expense of renewables means fossil fuels, hopefully with CCS at some point, will play a large role in our energy mix for a long while yet. So if shale gas provides a source with a lower carbon footprint than coal or conventional gas shipped halfway round the world then it’s worth exploring. Maybe fracking is the new nuclear: controversial, not without its downsides, but ultimately a move towards a lower-carbon economy.

There’s a huge problem, however. We don’t know how much shale gas is down there and we don’t know how much we can technically or economically retrieve. The UK is too different from the US to replicate its shale success exactly. We’re too small, place a higher value on the countryside, and are quicker to impose regulation. The geological conditions combined with the controls necessary to preserve our local environment could make it impossible for companies to make enough money from fracking operations in the UK to make it worth the considerable investment.

The added expense could also mean we won’t see energy prices dropping as they have in the US even if fracking becomes widespread. Another report released yesterday by the independent government advisory body the Committee on Climate Change warned that rising prices and carbon taxes mean that pursuing a gas-based energy strategy could add £500 to the average energy bill over the coming decades compared to a low-carbon strategy.

We also don’t know what shale gas’s true carbon footprint is. If the energy-intensive production methods mean it is responsible for far more emissions than conventional gas then we might be better off leaving it in the ground. While developments in technology may improve this, again this will depend partly on the geology itself, so we won’t know until we try it.

Despite the potential of shale gas, we should be very cautious of thinking fracking is the answer to our short or medium-term energy needs, or indeed that it will play more than a minor role in our gas supplies. Tim Fox, head of energy at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, for example, expects it to contribute little more than a few per cent of our total gas use. Ignoring shale completely would be unwise, but equally we shouldn’t bet the farm on it, as the US has done almost literally.

And ultimately we need more sustainable technologies than gas-powered turbines to make renewables work: energy storage, improved efficiency, demand reduction. These are the areas with the potential to make the most useful long-term impact on the energy landscape but are currently not receiving the attention they deserve; focusing too heavily on fracking could prove a dangerous distraction.

Readers' comments (10)

  • An interesting article on this new decision by the government. We need some consistent long term decisions and my concern is that fracking will prove to be a good idea restricted by planning rules just as we have seen with on-shore wind. As a country we are (rightly) cautious about the impact of new technology. My vote is to invest in nuclear, where the issues are better understood and there is a clear carbon reduction.

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  • IMHO, the last paragraph sums up the whole issue perfectly.

    It's very foolish to let electricity infrastructure development be influenced by the vagaries of 'market' forces and this government is wedded to that dogma, even though it doesn't understand how it works, or perhaps because it doesn't understand how it works.

    The Treasury has a sense of direction very much like a headless chicken.

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  • Its all down to the bottom line. Could end up costing more lives than the nuclear industry in the UK. Same guess at the risks, If a disaster does occour some one will stand there and say"we have taken steps to ensure it will never happen again"

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  • Neil is spot on. Nuclear plants are expensive to build, but once there will yield a reliable supply for several decades at an affordable and predictable cost. Their environmental impact is modest and well characterised. It would be far better to become world class nuclear experts and leave any gas safely buried.

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  • This report is good news, but we must proceed with ultimate caution. The famland of West Lancashire is extremely productive and we cannot afford to spoil it. Unlike the Oil rush,we must learn the lessons of history and not squander the resource or the income. Dropping prices through the floor will only encourage wasteful use of a finite energy source and lose any benefit of carbon gas reduction. Similarly, any profits should be sensibly invested for the future, not spent on bonuses & champers.
    'Free' fuel encourages bonfires and we only get one go at this resource.

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  • A very considered article Stephen. The assumption by media commentators seems to be that the well footprint will be limited. but single and especially multiple well footprints, in terms of transportational support(sand etc.) and water supply/disposal will raise the same objections as onshore wind. Perhaps more so.

    One can see plenty of online US photographic evidence of the effects in far more sparsely populated areas.

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  • Stephen,

    I'm in agreement with a lot of what you say. I think however you are wrong to support the case - albeit cautiously and obliquely - that shale gas is a climate fix. We don't need to see what the "true carbon footprint" is. Any fossil carbon underground that is moved to the atmosphere is a problem not a solution.

    It is well documented that US coal is increasingly being exported to China because the domestic US power industry can get cheaper 'Joules' from shale gas. Global net carbon emissions are unlikely to be reduced much if at all by the US switch to so-called cleaner gas. Cheap coal imports for China slows their move to renewables.

    Admittedly the same won't happen here because of the relative scale of our recoverable domestic coal and shale gas reserves.

    Some of the US academic research that apparently cleared fracking of the serious environmental impacts like ground water pollution have been called into question. Let's hope the review by DECC led by David Mackay is truly objective.


    "Mr Davey said the advent of shale gas would not weaken the UK's legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He announced a study from the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) chief scientist David McKay on the impact of shale gas on climate change."

    "This is the third time in three months that fracking research by energy-friendly university industry consortiums has been discredited. The Shale Resources Institute at the State University of New York at Buffalo was closed after questions were raised about the quality and independence of its work. And an industry canceled their fracking study after professors at Penn State University refused to participate."

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  • This is a very important point to consider. Perhaps a domestic supply of gas will enable a step drop in UK emissions, but if the UK stops buying gas from abroad then that could help lower the international price and just make it easier for other countries to buy and burn it.

  • Fracking will pollute ground water, some water being used today has been underground for thousands of years.

    I will also destroy archaeological remains, such as pottery etc.

    The gas won't last more than 30 years.

    We need to get on developing renewable now, more carbon based fuels will make climate change worse!

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  • I agree we need a more balanced approach, but 'renewables' are not the ultimate be all and end all.

    Fracking may offer us a stop gap until more beneficial technologies become available.

    The one question that is never asked is the impact of 'renewables' themselves on the climate. Thinking that putting up several hundred thousand wind turbines and solar panels won't impact weather systems around where they are located.

    Fission should also be on the table.

    Unfortunately a small nation like the UK is going to have a minor impact compared to the likes of the USA, China and India.

    Until Fusion becomes a viable alternative, cost effective and reliable solutions are required. To which the likes of gas, clean coal and Fission need to be components.

    I just wish the government would invest in fusion research other than tokamak!

    @Diane Kivi, We don't know that Fracking will impact ground water, there is currently no conclusive evidence.

    This is the purpose of these studies to determine these things.

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  • Arguably our relative wealth, developed economy, international political clout and strong scientific base could enable us to have a large impact on the world's response to climate change, even if our own emissions become relatively minor.

  • A lot has been mooted about the 'mess' that drilling for oil and/or gas makes and leaves behind. If I recall there has been a highly successful, if smallish scale oil extraction facility in the south of England that is almost invisible and has little or no effect on its surrouindings.

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