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Shale gas development a priority for UK government

Promising reserves combined with increased tightening on carbon emissions mean the move to shale gas seems logical

Faced with declining oil and gas output from mature fields in the North Sea, European Union-wide mandates to cut carbon emissions, a rising energy import bill and growing concern at sharp increase in domestic utility prices, it seems logical that the UK government would encourage a shift towards developing and using domestic shale-gas resources.   

And promising reserves estimates and increasing interest from major energy companies, from industry’s perspective, the prospects for development look good.   

At the end of July, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) released details of acreage on offer in the country’s 14th onshore licensing round. Companies have until 28 October to tender bids for blocks across some of the country’s most prospective shale measures. 

However, the winners of these blocks will need more than expertise and cash. The biggest challenge they, and for that matter, the UK government, face is ensuring they have the social licence to begin unconventionals development. And therein lies the problem. While industry is keen to establish a shale sector, public opinion is deeply divided.

There is confusion about the level of support shale-gas development has in the UK. A recent industry-backed survey released by the UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) group claims almost 60% of the British public support shale-gas development, with just 16% of respondents opposing it.

But a survey carried out in May as part of a long-term project by the University of Nottingham, suggests support for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fell to less than 50% this year, compared with support of more than 58% of respondents in the university’s July 2013 poll. Interestingly, the Nottingham University studies point to a divergence in acceptance of shale-gas development between supporters of the UK’s three largest political parties.

Britons who are aligned with the UK Labour party were less likely to be in favour of shale gas extraction, the report said. Supporters of the ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government, on the other hand, were more likely to be broadly in favour of it.

Recent figures from the government suggest public support for shale is much lower. DECC’s Public Attitudes Tracker published on 12 August shows public support for fracking fell to just 24%, down from 29% in March. 

DECC set up the tracking survey in early 2012 to monitor public attitudes to its main business priorities. The shale data was collected between 25- 29 June 2014 using face-to-face, in-home interviews at 2,087 households in the UK, the department said. Around 24% of respondents said they were opposed to shale-gas extraction. However, almost half (47%) say they neither support nor oppose it. 

While these surveys can give an indication of the level of support for shale gas among the UK public, they cannot be considered conclusive, mostly because of their scale. The UKOOG study surveyed 4,086 adults over a seven-day period, while the DECC tracking survey canvassed just over 2,000 households. Given that the UK’s population is more than 63 million, the survey samples are small. 

Regardless, it is arguable that these surveys show that the majority of Britons are unsure about shale development. It is arguable too that the government hasn’t sold shale gas to the public particularly well, despite prime minister David Cameron’s pledge to go “all out for shale”.

For many people living in areas likely to see shale-gas development, questions remain about the affect it could have, not just on the environment, but on a wide range of issues, including  infrastructure, noise levels and their quality of life, for example.  A previously unreleased report from March 2014, titled Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts, came to light at the beginning of August following a freedom of information (FoI) request lodged with the government by the environmental group Greenpeace. 

The report released to Greenpeace was heavily redacted, with sections covering the effect of shale-gas development on house prices and local services removed. The majority of the report’s conclusions were also redacted. The information which remains is largely devoted to the potentially positive effects of shale-gas development, such as the number of jobs which could be created. 

Greenpeace has claimed the redacted report and the latest figures on public acceptance show that the government’s support for shale gas development has become “a politically toxic mix of hype, spin, and secrecy". 

The news of the redacted report is damaging and could give rise to a degree of cynicism about the government’s statements on shale. 

Regardless, it is clear that sections of the general public are strongly opposed to unconventionals development. Organisations such as Frack Off and No Dash for Gas have been particularly active in organising anti-shale protests across Lancashire, Yorkshire, Sussex and Northern Ireland.

While most demonstrations have been peaceful, there have been isolated violent incidents, including the attempted petrol-bombing of the home of a Tamboran Resources employee, in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. No one was hurt in the incident.  

With a general election less than a year away, rising energy bills and the security of the UK’s energy supply are sure to be issues for many voters. If shale gas is one of the solutions to the UK’s energy problems, then politicians can ill-afford to brush aside concerns about fracking. If the UK’s politicians are to succeed in convincing the public that shale gas will benefit them, as well as energy companies, they must be transparent about the potential disadvantages as well as the benefits.

Only when the public know all the available facts will they use reason, rather than emotion, to decide if they will support shale.

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