UK to ‘protect areas of beauty’ in new round of shale licensing

Wild flowers and beach huts in Whitstable
Source: DollarPhotoClub

The UK government has opened the 14th onshore licensing round for companies wishing to explore shale gas in the country – the BBC News reported today.

The new bidding opportunity, the first in six years, comes with strings attached. The government announced new curbs on fracking in areas of outstanding beauty and has also given the environment secretary more power to intervene where there are disputes over drilling. Also, an agreement to proceed with drilling would still be subject to planning permission and permits from the Environment Agency.

The areas open for licensing include National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites, but fracking in these areas will be allowed only in “exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”, said the government.

The UK government has famously declared that it wants to ‘go all out on shale’ in the belief is that shale gas exploration will lead to energy independence, lower energy bills, and job growth in areas where it is needed the most. Major shale gas deposits have been identified in the North, where the economy is still stagnant. Shale gas has also been put forward as the ‘greener’ alternative to coal and a ‘bridge fuel’ towards environmentally-friendly energy from renewables.

Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said: “Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.”

“We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy.”

Opponents of fracking, however, believe that as a fossil fuel, shale gas is a problem rather than a solution. Especially that the drive to extract shale diverts attention and resources from renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. The controversial extraction method, commonly referred to as ‘fracking’, raises concerns about ground water pollution, fugitive methane emissions, and ground contamination.

There is also the question of how much of the fuel is economically recoverable. The revised EIA estimates for the Monterey Shale in California shows that initial assumptions can be misleading. Only extraction will show the true amount and the quality of the resource and that may be quite a while off yet.

Robert Gatliff, Science Editor at the British Geological Survey told the BBC that although surveys suggest there is between 820 and 2000 trillion cubic feet of gas embedded under the UK, “there’s no way we’d get all that out”.

“If you look at what happens in the US, and that’s where you’ve got to look because that’s where they’ve drilled thousands of holes, they’re not getting more than 5%,” Mr. Gatliff said.

“In Britain we’re so crowded and we’ve got these beautiful areas, that reduces the amount we can get out as well.”

The government has rejected the claims that tightening the drilling rules is set to appease the anti-fracking protesters in Tory areas in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, and Surrey. While a major part of shale gas deposits can be found in the North of the country – traditionally Labour constituencies – some of it is in the traditional Tory heartlands in the South. Only last Thursday, opponents of fracking scored their first victory when a drilling application in the West Sussex village of Wisborough Green was thrown out by West Sussex County Council’s planning committee.

In order to overcome the protests, the government has announced a number of incentives to help kick-start shale industry, including tax breaks, payments of £100,000 per site plus a 1% share of revenue to local communities. Despite that, the support for fracking has reached an all-time low of less than fifty percent – according to a recent YouGov survey.

However, the belief that shale exploration should be abandoned in order to fight global warming is not shared by everyone. The BBC’s Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin explained: “If environmentalists succeed in stopping fracking in the UK by stirring up local objections they will actually make the greenhouse effect worse in the short term.”

“This is because Britain will continue to use gas for heating and as a backup to capricious wind and solar electricity. If the industry can’t get British gas it will import liquefied gas – and the energy needed to turn gas into liquid makes it worse for the climate than home-produced gas.”

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