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.