Shale gas and the engineering term hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) have proved controversial since the moment they became part of the UK energy debate. Now, with three months to go until the general election, they’re creating genuine political divides.
Scotland has already blocked all planned fracking operations for the foreseeable future. And across the UK people remain deeply unsure about the technologies involved, with deep-rooted concerns over the chemicals used, the potential for drinking water to be contaminated, the possibility of earth tremors and the damage that might be caused to the local environment.
With oil prices still at the lowest level seen for sometime and leading politicians calling for a moratorium on shale gas activity across the whole of the UK, some commentators are now asking whether we should abandon this potential energy source altogether – an approach favoured by some nervous MPs faced with fracking in their constituencies.
This, however, would be an entirely retrograde move for the UK - it is absolutely imperative for our future energy needs that drilling companies are allowed to move forward with exploration.
UK shale gas remains many years away – if it is to happen at all – yet the North Sea reserves that we rely on to heat the vast majority of our homes and businesses are depleting rapidly. To help make sensible decisions and plan for an energy secure future it is important that we allow exploratory drilling in shale deposits to find out exactly what gas reserves we may really have in the UK. Shale gas will not be a silver bullet, and it is important Government does not promote it as such. It is unlikely to ever impact greatly on energy prices in the UK, but it could present us with a useful additional option to help avoid a total dependence on gas imported from overseas.
It could also provide some long-term economic benefits to our country, including much needed jobs in areas of economic deprivation and potentially lead to export business based on the engineering skills and knowledge we develop.
We engineers have an increasingly vital role to play if we’re to help the public understand the reasons for exploration and how it can be carried out with minimum risk. A poll last year by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers found that 47 per cent of people would not be happy for a gas well site using fracking to open within 10 miles of their home, compared to just 14 per cent who said they would be happy.
Additionally only 30 per cent of people have a good understanding of what fracking is, compared with 40 per cent who said they had ‘some’ understanding and 30 per cent who said they had little or no understanding.
For shale gas to become an accepted energy source in the UK, engineers need to demonstrate how we’re making these technologies safe to use, and why many public fears are misguided. We know that shale gas exploration can be done without undue environmental or health risks, but this information is not getting through, and we need to prioritise robust technical evidence over scaremongering and conjecture.
This month the Institution is hosting its annual Engineers’ Summit for UK Shale Gas, where experts from around the world will share best practice on the methods and processes needed to safely and effectively carry out shale gas activity in the UK. One aim of the Summit is to help engineers communicate their knowledge of best practice more effectively with the public.
Whether people like it or not, given the almost total dependence of the UK on gas for heating, it is a matter of some urgency that we find ways to be less reliant on overseas gas markets and plan for energy secure heat provision. And while we need to be investing in long-term renewable energy infrastructure and other non-fossil fuel based solutions, shale gas could play a useful role in helping meet our energy needs in the transition. The problem is, if we don’t do some exploratory drilling we won’t know.
Dr Tim Fox is head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers