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UK gives fracking the green light but controls will be introduced

The UK will allow hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to resume, but it will introduce more stringent environmental controls for the process, the government has said

Speaking to journalists in London, Ed Davey, the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Secretary, said that fracking would be allowed to assess the UK’s shale gas potential. “We think shale gas represents a promising new potential energy resource for the UK. It could contribute significantly to our energy security, reducing our reliance on imported gas, as we move to a low-carbon economy,” Davey said.

The government said, however, that new environmental controls would be put in place to mitigate any seismic risks, adding that “fracking would not be allowed at any environmental cost”.

Earthquake risk

The new environmental controls will require a review to assess any risk of tremors and the existence of faults before fracking begins. A fracking plan must also be submitted to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showing how seismic risks will be addressed. Seismic monitoring must be carried out before, during and after fracking.

DECC said that a new traffic light system to categorise seismic activity would be introduced, which could trigger a mechanism to stop fracking operations in certain conditions.

The UK government placed a moratorium on fracking in May 2011 after Cuadrilla Resources’ drilling operations caused two tremors near the city of Blackpool, northern England. The moratorium was formally lifted earlier this year, but further exploration was effectively put on hold while the UK government studied shale-gas development.

Tony Grayling, head of Climate Change and Communities at the UK’s Environment Agency, said he was satisfied that existing regulations are sufficient to protect people and the environment from any fracking-related risks.

Davey also announced he would commission a new study into the impact of shale-gas development on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. “Methane emissions from unconventional gas are only very slightly higher than from conventional gas but I want a study into this to be sure that is the case,” Davey said. “I have been guided by the evidence. The fact is that we (the UK) need gas. Is it not better we use the gas in this country than continue to increase imports?”

Peter Kiernan, an energy analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said that this was welcome news for the UK. But he warned strict environmental regulations could slow growth in the sector. “Any decision to prioritise gas in the UK's energy mix would mean that this fall in domestic output would need to be reversed in order to avoid greater dependence on imports, such as LNG (liquefied natural gas),” Kiernan said. “A stringent set of rules would make it less likely that the UK could repeat the rapid growth in shale gas production witnessed in the US, even assuming that the level of economically recoverable resources of shale gas is as extensive as some suggest.”

Shale gas in the UK is still at a very early exploration phase and commercial production of the unconventional resource was not likely for at least 10 years, Davey added in a statement to parliament. He added that exploration work involving fracking was not likely to get under way until “well into next year”. 

The debate over whether or not to shale-gas production should be allowed in the UK has gathered momentum in recent weeks.

Andrew Rawnsley, a prominent UK journalist, spoke out against shale gas in an article in the UK-based Sunday newspaper, The Observer, on 9 December. Rawnsley claimed shale-gas exploration was too environmentally risky and that the country should invest in renewable energy sources instead. Others, though, have touted the potential economic benefits to the UK. 

Francis Egan, Cuadrilla Resources’ chief executive, told parliament recently that the Bowland basin reserves have the potential to supply a quarter of UK gas demand and to create tens of thousands of jobs.“If the UK is the first (country) in Europe to do shale gas in a proper regulated manner then there is the opportunity to create service centres for other Europeans and there have already been companies approaching Cuadrilla and Lancashire county council discussing the possibility of setting up service industry based on shale gas,” he said.  

Limited prospects?

Cuadrilla said last year it is sitting on 200 trillion cubic feet (cf) of shale gas in the Bowland basin. A new study by the British Geological Survey into the UK’s shale gas reserves is due out next year.  

Corin Taylor, a senior economic advisor from the Institute of Directors, added that tax revenue from UK shale gas production could help to fill some of the gap from the lost of North Sea tax revenue. Although fracking has been given the green light, the debate will continue and public opposition could still sink the UK’s shale-gas ambitions.

Professor Jonathan Stern, a researcher from the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, recently told parliament that the prospects for shale-gas development in Europe were limited because the public were unlikely to accept it. “I believe unconventional gas is a real prospect in three or four countries in Europe; probably Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and, under certain circumstances, the UK,” Stern said. “But that’s going to require public tolerance of drilling and fracking a large number of wells and I don’t see that around at the moment.”

Stern said between 300 to 500 new shale-gas wells would have to be drilled every year in Europe to achieve anywhere near the scale of US shale gas production.

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