Perfect storm over future of UK shale exploration

Stormy sky over Big Ben
Source: DollarPhotoClub

Shale exploration in the UK suffered a serious setback today after a report from the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee concluded that fracking for gas should be suspended in the UK because it poses significant health risks to locals and makes it virtually impossible for the country to meets its carbon reduction targets.

Following the publication of the report, a number of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats including the former Cabinet minister Caroline Spelman and Home Office minister Norman Baker, as well as a significant number of other MPs with constituencies in potential fracking zones, have made it clear that they will call for amendments to the Government’s Infrastructure Bill that would effectively impose a moratorium on fracking in the UK.

The Environmental Audit Committee has not ruled out fracking altogether but proposed certain changes to the Infrastructure Bill such as: removing the clause the allows exploration companies right of access under private land, prohibiting fracking in nationally important areas such as National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, SSIs, ancient woodland.

The report also warned that only a very small fraction of our shale reserves can be safely burned if we are to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees – the Government’s current commitment under the Climate Change Act.

Joan Walley MP, chair of the Committee, said: “Ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely. There are also huge uncertainties around the impact that fracking could have on water supplies, air quality and public health.”

The Audit Committee also pointed out that independent monitoring should be conducted to ensure the public can have confidence in the results. Regulators must also conduct regular unannounced spot checks and audits of all fracking sites, and facilitate clear and accessible public disclosure of all monitoring data. Companies must be made to disclose — in an accessible way — all of the chemicals used in shale gas exploration and production, and the potential risks they pose. The report stated that is unacceptable that there are currently no monitoring requirements for decommissioned or abandoned wells.

Other recommendations included in the report:

  • Licences and permits must not be issued if commercial operators cannot demonstrate sufficient resources and insurances to cover full liability in event of pollution incidents.
  • Venting of methane emissions is unacceptable. Full containment of methane must be mandated in all fracking permits and permissions.
  • To protect groundwater a minimum separation distance — between the shales being fracked and underground aquifers — should be defined and mandated.

The report was met with strong criticism from the Department of Energy and Climate Change which said in a statement: “We disagree with the conclusion of this report. We have one of the most robust regulatory regimes for shale gas.

“UK shale development is compatible with our goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions and does not detract from our support for renewables; in fact it could support development of intermittent renewables. To meet our challenging climate targets we will need significant quantities of renewables, nuclear and gas in our energy mix. Shale gas has huge potential to create jobs and make us less reliant on imports.”

The Institute of Directors (IoD) claimed the group of MPs were “hopelessly misguided”.

“This hopelessly misguided report completely fails to recognise that by refusing to extract our own gas by fracking, the only results will be that the UK imports more gas from abroad,” said Dan Lewis, senior infrastructure adviser at the IoD.

“It also ignores the important use of natural gas in heating our homes and the UK’s manufacturing industries. “Our political leaders already have all the information they need to decide that shale is an important part of our energy mix, and should push ahead for a well-regulated fracking industry that creates jobs and reduces our reliance on imported gas.”

The argument for natural gas extraction is that as a fossil fuel that is much cleaner than its obvious alternative, coal, it can function as a ‘bridge’ between traditional fossil fuels and renewable energy. However opponents of gas argue that developing any kind of fossil fuel locks the country into a high-carbon future.

The view of the Environmental Audit Committee is that shale gas could not be considered a transition fuel as any large scale extraction would be at least 10 to 15 years away, by which time dirtier coal would have been phased out.

“A moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking is needed to avoid both the inconsistency with our climate change obligations and to allow the uncertainty surrounding environmental risks to be fully resolved,” they urged.

But the fracking industry’s representative body, UKOOG, dismissed the committee’s report: “This rushed report ignores the fact that gas is not just a source of electricity but has a major impact on everyday life with respect to the projects we use to heat our homes, the cooking we do and the jobs it sustains in our industry,” said UKOOG chief executive, Ken Cronin. “Calling for a moratorium achieves only one thing – increasing the levels of gas coming from outside the UK at a substantially higher environmental cost,” he added.

The report was also criticised by Tom Crotty, the director of the chemical giant INEOS, the owner of the Grangemouth faciity, which in November 2014 announced plans to invest £640 million in shale gas exploration.

“This was a missed opportunity,” Crotty said. “The Committee deliberately sought out views that focussed on concerns about water quality, emissions and geological integrity and so produced a partisan and partial report. The Committee refused to see INEOS and didn’t look hard enough at the massive decline in the UK’s manufacturing base and the country’s desperate need for Shale gas to reduce energy costs and revitalise industry.”

“The UK needs shale gas and we know that INEOS has the skills to safely extract it from the ground without damaging the environment. We have committed to public consultation and to share 6 per cent of the entire revenue from any of our shale gas wells with the local community. Without shale gas, UK manufacturing is starting to collapse so we need to kick start the Shale gas industry, not put it on hold,” he added.

The future of shale gas in the UK seems uncertain. Although the majority of political parties support it at least in principle – only the Green Party and the Scottish National Party seem to have decided unequivocally against shale gas – the grass-root opposition against the fuel is considerable. Not many politicians will want to fly in the face of public opinion just 100 days before the General Election.

The support of the currently ruling Conservative Party for fracking is well known, with the Prime Minister David Cameron declaring famously to “go all out for shale”. A stance that was criticized by the opposition Labour Party which likes to be seen as taking a tougher stance on shale exploration in the UK. When it comes to the currently debated Infrastructure Bill, Labour will attempt to block all fracking unless 13 regulatory “loopholes” it has specified are closed, including allowing companies to drill in areas where drinking water collects and to inject “any substance” into the ground.

Tom Greatrex, Labour’s shadow energy minister, said: “The potential [energy security] benefit cannot come at the expense of robust environmental protections or our climate change commitments. Labour will force a vote on Monday to prevent shale gas developments in the UK unless these loopholes are closed.”

The EAC’s call for a fracking ban has also split academic experts, with some seeing its report as showing “refreshing integrity” while others dismissed is as “ill-informed”.

Prof Kevin Anderson, a climate change expert at the University of Manchester, welcomed the report, saying: “Numerous reports have conveniently sidestepped how the UK government’s enthusiasm for shale gas is incompatible with its international commitments on avoiding “dangerous climate change”. It is therefore refreshing to witness the integrity of the EAC in putting science and maths ahead of short-term political goals.”

On the other hand, Quentin Fisher, professor of petroleum geoengineering at the University of Leeds, said: “It is disappointing to see [the EAC] putting the ill-informed views of anti-fracking groups ahead of evidence-based scientific studies. In particular, the report totally overstates the dangers of shale gas extraction such as groundwater pollution, health risk and geological integrity.”

“Gas will be a significant part of the UK’s energy mix for the foreseeable future and it is preferable that we are as self-sufficient as possible,” he said, adding: “Hopefully, MPs will reject the findings of this report and allow UK citizens to receive the economic and social benefits that shale gas extraction could bring.”

This hasn’t been good time for the UK shale cause. On Thursday, Lancashire County Planning Officer recommended that the permission for fracking on two sites, in Preston Road and Roseacre Wood near Blackpool, be refused on the grounds of noise pollution and increased traffic. The following day, site operator, Cuadrilla Resources, asked the council to defer a decision on whether to allow two new fracking sites in Lancashire. The opposition to the development on the two sites managed by Cuadrilla – one in Preston Road and another in Roseacre Wood near Blackpool – is huge. Last week, Lancashire County Council received a letter signed by 25,000 individuals asking for the plans to be abandoned.

On Monday, the day that the EAC report was released, a leaked letter from the Chancellor George Osborne added fuel to the fire. In the letter, dated 24th September 2014, the Chancellor asks ministers that they “make it a personal priority” to fast-track shale development in the UK.

In particular, the Chancellor put the following on the agenda:

  • a clear timetable (for an Autumn Statement announcement) to implement the development of 3-4 exemplar drilling sites to prove the concept of safe shale gas exploration, including locations,
  • a firm proposal for moving towards more central regulation, up to and including a single national regulator,
  • a clear set of actions to influence the new EU Commission on the importance of shale gas to Europe’s future,
  • an action plan to ensure Government agencies (EA and HSE) have the necessary resources and skills in place to publicly defend the robustness and safety of the regulatory regime.

Anti-fracking campaigners claim the letter reveals collusion with the industry, with Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth saying that: “This letter shows government and industry working hand-in-glove to make sure fracking happens. Such collusion with a highly unpopular industry will just make fracking an even more politically toxic issue. The government should follow other countries and call a halt so we can assess the risks to the environment, people’s health and our climate.”

Tom Greatrex, Labour’s shadow energy minister, commented on the letter saying: “Cameron and Osborne have repeatedly ignored genuine and legitimate environmental concerns – they seem prepared to accept shale gas at any cost, and this letter demonstrates that to be the case.”

“Osborne’s shale gas wishlist reveals a Tory government that wants to halve the number of public consultations, turning the government into an unabashed cheerleader for fracking rather than adopting a robust and evidence-led approach.”

However controversial the letter might be, it makes one fair point – one that was stressed by Cuadrilla’s boss Francis Egan in a recent interview and reiterated by the Prime Minister on Monday. Until there is shale development in the UK, all discussions about its viability or potential dangers are purely hypothetical. Many in the pro-fracking camp believe that once exploration actually happens, people will see for themselves that their fears were exaggerated.

Speaking during visit to Hampshire on Monday, David Cameron said: “I want to see unconventional gas properly exploited in our country. I think there are good reasons for doing this – we want to have greater energy security, we want to keep prices down, we also want to tackle climate change.”

He added: “The most important thing that needs to happen is for some exploratory wells to be dug and all would see local communities are benefiting from it.

“I think it’s only then that we will see that people in this country see that it works in America and it can work here.”

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