Today, the lower house of the UK Parliament voted 298 votes to 261 to allow hydraulic fracturing to take place underneath National Parks and other environmentally protected areas in the UK.
This prompted anger from anti-fracking lobbyists accusing the Government of a U-turn on its earlier promise of an “outright ban” on fracking in National Parks and areas of outstanding beauty. As it currently stands, exploration companies are able to drill horizontal wells underneath the protected areas, raising fears among environmentalists that the protected zones could be ringed with fracking wells.
The vote was welcomed by UKOOG, the representative body for the UK onshore oil and gas industry, which said in a statement that the fears associated with shale exploration and production should be mitigated by the knowledge that any future hydraulic fracturing for shale will take place several kilometres underground. It added that “the onshore oil industry takes the protection of our natural world seriously, and we have a long established track record of developing oil and gas fields successfully and safely in environmentally sensitive areas.”
“As an industry we take all possible steps to minimise our impact on the environment and the surrounding communities,” it concluded.
The MPs pro-shale decision comes on the heels of a report released by the UK Task Force on Shale Gas which has found that shale exploration can be carried out safely and responsibly provided that industry-leading standards are fully adhered to.
The report reads that “The risk from shale gas to the local environment or to public health is no greater than that associated with comparable industries provided, as with all industrial works, that operators follow best-practice”, pointing out that much of the bad reputation attached to fracking was caused by early exploration and production attempts in the US, where “operators’ standards were lax”.
The authors of the report argue that as long as the operators are held to the highest standards with regard to well integrity, baseline monitoring, and “green completions” – which the Task Force believes ought to be mandatory – shale exploration can be done safely. The report further argues that “transparency must be placed at the heart of any nascent shale gas industry”, calling for the operators to fully disclose the chemical content of materials used in shale gas exploration and production and agree that the specific composition will not exceed levels mandated by the Environment Agency.
With these recommendations in place, the Task Force believes that shale exploration is necessary to ascertain the levels of recoverable shale gas in the UK. It has also recognised the benefits shale production could bring – especially to the northern regions of the UK – with its potential for job creation and creating a supply chain to support the emerging industry.
Should this happen, however, it was recommended that the Government should explore the possibility of creating a bespoke regulator specifically to oversee this industry, to assume the current responsibilities of the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive and the regulatory responsibilities of the Department of Energy & Climate Change.
As expected, the report was criticised by Greenpeace, coming just days after a climate deal was agreed in Paris.
“Whatever planet the UK fracking lobby inhabits, it can’t be the same one where world leaders just reached a historic deal that puts fossil fuels on the wrong side of history,” a Greenpeace spokesperson told BBC News.
“If the UK government is really committed to keeping its end of the Paris deal, it must rethink its support for fracking and back safe, cheap clean energy instead.”
Also speaking to BBC News, and responding to questions about how shale could fit into the plan of cutting carbon emissions, Lord Smith, of the Task Force for Shale Gas, argued that natural gas from shale will serve as a “green bridge” during a transition from the dirtier fossil fuels like coal and oil towards renewable sources of energy.
He also pointed out that domestically-produced gas would be the environmentally preferred option to importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Qatar, which the UK is doing now.
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