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UK needs a rational debate about shale-gas development

The UK is coming round the idea of shale-gas development. But what we need now is for the media to steer a calm, rational debate about the fuel's benefits and drawbacks

This morning the UK-based newspaper The Independent said British homes could be supplied with fuel derived from domestic shale gas production within three years. The story was based on an interview the newspaper did with Cuadrilla Resources chief executive Francis Egan.

Egan told the paper that UK policymakers must “get a sense of proportion” over any potential environmental risks involved with shale-gas production and also urged the media to report facts rather than “horror stories” abotu hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

It struck me that the Independent’s piece signalled a real departure. In April last year, the newspaper published a story about shale gas which took a very different tone.  Last year’s story talked about “the controversial natural gas extraction technique which sometimes causes earthquakes” and focused on the environmental concerns associated with fracking.

Hyperbole is part and parcel of UK media coverage of fracking. Stories either make dire warnings, such as those in this article or they hype up the economic benefits fracking could bring to Britain. The debate is polarised: you either believe developing shale gas will boost the UK’s ailing economy or you maintain shale development will be an environmental disaster, contaminating water sources and making large parts of the country vulnerable to earth tremors, or worse. There’s very much middle ground between the two positions.

It’s not just the Independent which has given fracking bad press in the past. Several UK newspapers, including The Guardian  and The Telegraph have warned against the environmental peril of allowing shale-gas development. But despite this negative coverage, it seems the UK public is starting to accept shale-gas development, a recent survey by the University of Nottingham found.

I hope that today’s coverage in the Independent indicates that there’s a shift under way in the national debate about unconventional development. Perhaps it also signals the beginning of a more objective and balanced discussion. A crucial part of that debate will be adequately addressing environmental concerns. If unconventionals development is to go ahead, the public must be reassured that fracking is safe. That’s the first issue that needs addressing. Besides, until the Department of Energy and Climate Change releases its long-awaited report on the UK’s shale-gas reserves, we can’t begin to quantify how beneficial it would be to the UK in terms of job creation and GDP growth. That said, we live in uncertain economic times. Natural gas prices are rising  and the UK faces a possible electricity supply crunch within the next couple of years. Cash-strapped consumers stand to reap real benefits from a domestic shale-gas industry. We need to talk about shale and we need to make sure the discussions are calm and rational. The Independent's piece is a step towards starting exactly that sort of debate.

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