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Fracking tsar quits after government inaction

The UK shale gas industry has long struggled to gain traction and sees no green light in sight

The resignation of the UK's first shale gas commissioner, Natascha Engel, after only six months in the job is likely to change little for a sector that is already in a state of near-paralysis.

Engel said an understanding with the government, when she took on the role, that tough environmental rules governing fracking would be eased to facilitate the country's nascent search for shale gas had not yielded results. She described as "ridiculous", a rule that means companies must stop carrying out hydraulic fracturing and review their operations in the event that a tremor larger than 0.5 magnitude on the Richter scale was recorded at their site.

Engel was formerly an MP for the opposition Labour party and previously worked for petrochemicals firms Ineos, which holds a shale gas exploration licences across north and central England.

Cuadrilla Resources, the only company that has been able to carry out shale gas fracking in the UK, has had to pause work several times due to minor tremors, after it started fracking at its Preston Road site in October 2018.

Its chief executive Francis Egan said Engel had "accurately assessed" the situation of UK shale gas extraction. "Instead of embracing this huge opportunity we remain wedded to a miniscule micro-seismic threshold which has no scientific basis and is without parallel anywhere else in the world," he said in a statement.

Fracking firm bosses point out regularly that 0.5 magnitude tremors can barely be felt at the surface and that other industries are subject to far less severe restrictions.

Engel said her resignation was intended to draw attention to the need for change. Developing shale gas reserves would be beneficial to the UK's drive to reduce carbon emissions, she pointed out, as well as aid energy security and economic benefits such as job creation.

She argues — along with the UK fracking industry — that LNG imports, which accounted for 17pc of UK gas imports in 2018, create more carbon emissions than domestically produced shale gas would, due to the extra emissions generated by processing it and transporting it around the world.

Hidden treasure

Estimates vary as to the size of shale deposits across the UK, but the British Geological Survey estimated in 2013 that the Bowland-Hodder shale in Northern England could contain 1,300tn ft3 of gas.

"We are choosing to listen to a powerful environmental lobby campaigning against fracking rather than allowing science and evidence to guide our policy making," Engel said in her resignation letter. "By staying silent, we are in danger of pandering to what we know to be myths and scare stories."

However, that message may fall on deaf ears at Westminster, whatever the validity of the arguments. The UK government may not want to be seen championing increased gas production at a time when calls for greater urgency in tackling climate change are growing in the political arena.

Climate change activists have been carrying out protests that have brought parts of London's road and rail systems to a halt in recent weeks, while a report published by the cross-party parliamentary Committee on Climate Change in early May recommended a new emissions target for the UK of achieving net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050.

Climate change pressures are, in any case, only one of the challenges facing the fracking industry. The UK public has never been keen on projects with ramifications for the local environment. A big reason that the UK has a thriving offshore, rather than onshore wind industry is down to the ability of protestors to block onshore wind turbine construction by mobilising tough local planning laws.

The objections that prompted a year-long moratorium on fracking in England, shortly after Cuadrilla's first effort to carry out fracking in 2011, are unlikely to go away. Meanwhile, the government, while saying it supported the development of a UK shale gas industry in principle, has done little in practice to ease its path. Moratoriums imposed by the parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland remain in place.

This struggle has inevitably taken its toll on the small group of companies keen to start fracking. In late April, would-be fracker Third Energy said it had sold all of its onshore operations to an affiliate of Alpha Energy in the US. Barclays-owned Third Energy received planning permission to carry out fracking at its site near Kirby Misperton in Yorkshire, northern England in 2016, but has yet to receive government approval and had been bleeding cash to keep the site ready for action.

Cuadrilla was refused planning permission for a new site at Roseacre Wood in north-west England, but it says it wants to push on with its operations at its existing site. It said on May 1 that it had demobilised some of the equipment from Preston New Road site, as it had completed a relevant part of its work programme, adding: "Please be reassured that work is ongoing and both our wells remain ready for hydraulic fracturing."

The UK shale gas sector may not be dead yet, but the prospects of it making a major contribution to the country's energy mix in the near future look uncertain at best.

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