UPDATED: The future of UK shale under Conservatives

10 Downing Street, London
Source: DollarPhotoClub

The result of the recent General Election in the UK which handed power over to the Conservative government was the best possible outcome when it comes to the development of the shale industry in the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron famously pledged to “go all out on shale” in 2014 but, until now, his intentions had to be tempered by his coalition partners – especially by the then UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Davey (Liberal Democrat) who was openly cautious about fracking.

Now that Mr Davey is out of the picture – having lost his seat in the elections – and his role to be filled by the Conservative Amber Rudd, the ruling party can become more forceful when it comes to promoting shale in the UK.

“We will continue to support the safe development of shale gas, and ensure that local communities share the proceeds through generous community benefit packages,” said the Conservatives in their 2015 manifesto. “We will create a Sovereign Wealth Fund for the North of England, so that the shale gas resources of the North are used to invest in the future of the North.”

By comparison, Labour did not mention shale gas or fracking in its 2015 manifesto, and – while it supported shale development in principle – called for tougher regulation on fracking. Regulation which many in the Conservative party –  such as Peter Lilley, MP, from the Energy Select Committee – as well as some analysts, consider superfluous and unnecessary.

Speaking at a POLITEA event earlier this year, professor Robert Mair, of Cambridge University, said that: “it is important to distinguish very clearly between there being very clear guidelines for good practice, and producing new regulations. And our view is that existing regulations are more than adequate and there’s been quite a lot of debate on whether there should be any new regulations specifically for shale gas, our view is that we need no new regulations.”

While the Conservative victory dealt a huge blow to the Green Party – which was very vocal in its opposition to shale gas – the appointment of Amber Rudd as the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is the closest the Tory party will get to extending a hand toward the environmentalists.

“Rudd has been a champion of renewables and the low-carbon economy in the past year, and her appointment will do much to allay the fears some may have after the general election,” Nina Skorupska, chief executive officer of the Renewable Energy Association, said in a statement on Monday.

What is significant, however, is that while supporting renewables, Ms Rudd is firmly in the pro-fracking camp, seeing shale gas as a bridge-fuel between coal and clean renewable energy – a position most environmental groups reject.

Setting out the government view in a House of Commons debate in January, she said a “successful shale gas industry is an important part of our supporting renewables” because gas-fired power plants can work as a backup for intermittent flows from solar and wind. At the same time, she announced a ban on drilling in national parks, giving in to the demands of environmental groups and the Labour opposition.

Shale gas development in the UK is a contentious issue, with many politicians worrying that their support for fracking may alienate them from their constituents. Back in April, 1,000 prospective political candidates signed a “Frack Free Promise” designed by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which states: “If my constituency is at risk of fracking, I will oppose it. If my constituency is not at risk, I will oppose fracking nationwide.” Among the signatories there were 153 Labour and 143 Lib Dem candidates, as well as three Conservatives, who all have broken the party line which states support for shale exploration in the country.

Also, even though the Conservatives got the mandate of power for the next five years, it is worth remembering that many of those votes came from people who voted LibDem in previous elections, which means that the party might have to moderate its stance when it comes to energy policy to accommodate the views of a diverse electorate.

So far, despite passing universally unpopular measures in the UK Infrastructure Bill, which allowed exploration companies to run pipelines and conduct horizontal drilling under private landowners’ land, shale exploration in the country is yet to take off the ground. Fracking company Cuadrilla seems to be the closest to resuming exploration work – after earth tremors put a stop to drilling near Blackpool in 2012 – but it has been continually stalled by the Lancashire County Council.

Whether the UK will see shale exploration and production before 2020 remains to be seen. What is certain is that the shale industry has a greater chance of succeeding under the Conservatives than under any other party.

UPDATE (14th May 2015): Lancashire County Council (LCC) announced today that the decision on whether fracking will be allowed at the Preston New Road site in Little Plumpton will now be made at a meeting scheduled for 23 and 24 June and the application for Roseacre Wood, Roseacre, will be decided on 25 and 26 June.

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