Companies drilling for shale gas in the UK will have to follow new guidelines unveiled today to prevent dangerous seismic activity.
The announcement came as the government lifted the temporary ban on ‘fracking’ operations used to retrieve the gas from deep underground, which was introduced after tremors were recorded at the UK’s first exploratory drilling site last year.
The new controls on hydraulic fracturing are designed to ensure environmental protection, public safety and public confidence, but will add to the uncertainty surrounding the potential of shale gas to become an affordable source of energy for the UK because of the financial implications for companies wishing to drill.
Energy secretary Ed Davey said: ‘Shale gas represents a promising new potential energy resource for the UK. It could contribute significantly to our energy security, reducing our reliance on imported gas, as we move to a low-carbon economy.
‘My decision is based on the evidence. It comes after detailed study of the latest scientific research available and advice from leading experts in the field.’
However, Davey stressed that fracking in the UK was in a very early, exploratory stage and that it was not yet known how large Britain’s shale-gas deposits were or what proportion could be technically and economically retrieved.
He quoted figures from Cuadrilla Resources, the company operating the only UK fracking operation in Lancashire, that the proportion of available gas could be anywhere between zero and 40 per cent of the total.
Fracking involves pumping large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressures in order to fracture shale rocks and release the gas trapped within.
On top of the minor tremors detected in Lancashire, there are fears that the process could contaminate the underground water supply, either with gas or with chemicals.
The controls, devised following a report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, will introduce a traffic light system requiring fracking companies to pause and review their operations if seismic activity reaches magnitude 0.5 by conducting constant seismic monitoring before, during and after the operation.
Davey said he made no apologies that this was set at a deliberately cautious level and that some in the industry had said it was too conservative, but that the level may be adjusted as fracking operations develop.
Companies will also be required to complete an assessment of seismic risks and submit a detailed plan to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) before starting and that each stage of the process must be designed to use the minimum amount of fracking fluid necessary.
Well inspections by third-party advisers and government officials will be mandatory in an attempt to ensure the integrity of wells and prevent the contamination of the ground or water supply with gas or chemicals.
Tony Grayling, head of climate change and communities at the Environment Agency, said companies would be required to disclose the chemicals they were using in their fracking fluid and that only substances not deemed to be hazardous to the water supply would be licensed for use.
‘We are satisfied that existing regulations are sufficient to protect people and the environment in the current exploratory phase,’ he said. ‘We have also established a Shale Gas Unit to act as a single point of contact for industry to ensure there is an effective, streamlined approach for the regulations that fall within our responsibility.’
DECC has also commissioned a study into the possible impacts of shale-gas development on greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change.
Davey said that some analysts had suggested the processes involved in fracking would make the carbon footprint of shale gas much greater than that of traditional gas supplies, but that the evidence he had seen suggested it would only be slightly larger.
He said that gas would be necessary for heating and electricity generation in the UK as the country ended coal generation and transitioned to a low-carbon economy, and that creating a domestic supply of gas using fracking may have a lower carbon footprint than importing it from around the world.