Exploratory hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for shale gas can resume in the UK, subject to new controls to mitigate the risks of seismic activity, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Edward Davey has announced.
Drilling by Cuadrilla Resources was suspended after two minor earthquakes near Blackpool last year, thought likely to have been caused by the company’s activities.
The Government is keen to see shale gas become part of the UK’s energy mix, following the enormous growth of the industry in the US in recent years, but has had to consider public concerns over seismic activity and other environmental risks such as groundwater contamination.
However, 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.
'Must be confident'
“We are still in the very early stages of shale gas exploration in the UK and it is likely to develop slowly. It is essential that its development should not come at the expense of local communities or the environment. Fracking must be safe and the public must be confident that it is safe.
“We are strengthening the stringent regime already in place with new controls around seismic risks. And as the industry develops we will remain vigilant to all emerging evidence to ensure fracking is safe and the local environment is protected.”
Cuadrilla, the company leading the pack in the UK’s embryonic shale gas sector, welcomed the decision, which it described as “a turning point for UK energy”.
CEO Francis Egan said: “Our exploration has shown under Lancashire there is a belt of gas-filled shale over one mile thick. Today’s decision will allow continued exploration and testing of the UK’s very significant shale resources in a way that fulfils the highe st environmental and community standards.”
There are also concerns over possible greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts from shale gas extraction. Davey said: “I therefore intend to commission a study into the possible impacts of shale gas extraction on greenhouse gas emissions. This will consider the available evidence on the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas exploitation, and the need for further research.”
Rob Jeffries, principal at consultancy Environ, welcomed the Government’s plans for further research: “A lot of the issues are around fugitive methane emissions, as well as seismicity, air emissions, groundwater contamination, surface water contamination, water resources, noise, visual, traffic – these are the key points on which we will need at least baseline data before we talk about it.
“In order to manage public perceptions we need sufficient information to base our assessments on. For emissions to air and GHGs there is hardly any baseline information at our disposal, even from the US where most of the fracking is occurring. There’s just not enough information around at the moment.”
Highest environmental standards
John Naylor, of Ground-Gas Solutions, an environmental consultancy providing gas monitoring services to Cuadrilla at its test wells, said: “Any operators wishing to complete onshore natural gas exploration activities in the UK know they will need to ensure the highest environmental standards for groundwater, ground gas, soils and air. This will require working very closely with the regulators and local communities, providing the necessary evidence in an open manner.
“I see natural gas from shale and coal bed methane forming a good fraction of the UK’s energy mix, reducing reliance on coal or imports and thereby the likeliest fastest route to reducing carbon emissions, as has happened in the US.
“Ultimately the use of gas will likely reduce as renewable energy capacity increases in the coming decades. If we don’t use natural gas this may mean more coal for the UK from foreign imports and likely worsening GHG emissions in the short term.”
No need to worry
Jeffries dismissed concerns cheap, plentiful home-produced shale gas would threaten progress on renewables. He said: “Renewables won’t drop off in the near future, in part because it’s the most socially acceptable approach to our energy needs going forward at the moment.
“But renewables won’t provide all our energy requirements so they have to be backed up by fossil fuels – and nuclear down the road. Shale seems to be the untapped resource in the UK, and everyone seems to think it’s going to be a good thing for the UK based on what has happened in the US.”
Jeffries’ Illinois-based colleague Mark Travers agreed, despite less enthusiasm for renewables across the Atlantic.
He said: “People will still stay focused on renewables because in the long term we have to. The International Energy Agency is saying the US is going to probably be the largest oil and gas producer in the world by 2020 because of unconventional sources such as shale gas, but there’s still no people talking about slowing up on renewables.”
Rob Bell is a freelance journalist.