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Shale gas vs renewables: a battle for Britain

Environmentalists and lobbyists face to face in London

Pro- and anti-shale drilling groups came face to face in London this week, as renewable-energy advocates and shale-gas supporters debated the environmental and economic issues surrounding its extraction.

Benny Peiser, head of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, told the Shale Gas Environmental Summit that the UK cannot afford to squander its potentially vast shale-gas resources by choosing not to develop them. He said Cuadrilla Resources’ discovery of 200 trillion cubic feet (cf) of shale gas in northern England not only proves the UK’s unconventional potential, but it could also have enormous economic benefits for the country. 

Shale goldmine

“The UK may be sitting on a goldmine of abundant and relatively cheap energy that could supply its energy needs for a century or more,” he said. “A shale revolution could create a whole new energy industry, billions in revenue and thousands of new jobs. Cheap energy would make UK manufacturing more competitive and rising levels of fuel poverty could be reversed.”

In tough economic times, these arguments are likely to prove popular with the public. But environmental concerns – particularly in the wake of two earth tremors in northern England earlier this year – have added weight to anti-shale gas campaigners calls for a moratorium on drilling in the UK.

Moratorium momentum

Chris Shearlock, environment manager at Co-operative Group, is campaigning for a moratorium on drilling based on water-contamination fears. A report commissioned from the Manchester-based Tyndall Centre last year, concluded that ground-water contamination was a significant risk in shale-gas operations. Shearlock also claimed it will be very difficult to monitor whether thousands of wells have sufficient casings and that “the probability of well failure and mismanagement will be much higher” with multiple wells.

But he admitted that the company’s main reason for opposing shale gas development is because it could make development of renewable energy, which requires heavy government subsidies, uneconomic. Co-operative Group has been campaigning against shale-gas operations and organised screenings of the controversial Gasland movie  in Lancashire, near Cuadrilla’s drilling site. It also sponsored the film.

Nick Grealy, a shale-gas advocate, claimed the co-operative had been creating “an emotional response to scare people” regarding the environmental effects of shale gas drilling. Shearlock admitted that claim was “probably true”, but added: “My argument is that we should be supporting renewables instead.”

Gas flows from 2013

But Cuadrilla’s recent admission that it was “highly probable” that its fracking activities had caused two tremors in Lancashire earlier this year, is unlikely to help the company’s case. Next year, Cuadrilla will submit its development plans to the UK energy ministry for approval. If the company’s plans get the nod, it could feasibly bring the UK’s first shale gas to market in 2013.

This would have a “dramatic effect” on domestic gas prices, said Peiser. He claimed that the UK government’s “stubborn and wrong-headed commitment to renewable energy” is having a detrimental impact on UK consumers. “So-called green stealth taxes are adding substantially to domestic power bills,” he said.

Peiser even accuses the UK government of deliberately engineering energy policy to stunt shale-gas development and to promote renewable energy. He said: “By charging power companies and other industries for their carbon dioxide emissions, the government aims to make power derived from fossil fuels deliberately more expensive … making renewables, wind in particular, look more competitive.”

Reserves questioned

The argument that Cuadrilla is sitting on reserves of 200 trillion cf – over 20-times the UK’s conventional proved resources – has raised eyebrows, however. Some industry insiders claim there is a discrepancy in the numbers. Cuadrilla has, to date, drilled only two wells in its Bowland basin acreage and some experts say more are needed to accurately delineate its resource base.

Mike Stephenson, head of energy at the British Geological Survey (BGS), told PEU that while Cuadrilla registered good flow rates during well testing in Lancashire, it would need to drill many more wells to know for sure how much shale gas was in place. The BGS released a report on UK shale-gas resources last year claiming the Bowland basin’s reserves figure was a much more conservative – but still significant – 5 trillion cf.

Much uncertainty remains surrounding the UK’s potential shale-gas reserves, as well as the economic and environmental effects of further industry development. And despite the argument that booming shale-gas production would see domestic fuel bills drop, for some, the threat of environmental damage makes further development too risky.

The public perception

The anti-shale gas group Frack Off launched two protests to coincide with the forum – one at Cuadrilla’s drilling site at Hesketh Bank, Merseyside, and another at the conference itself. A protester at the London event, Emily Holm, a student from Brighton, told PEU: “The amount of drinking water [fracking] uses and the amount of tanks and oil used in taking it away again consumes so much energy. [Shale gas] is an extreme energy source like tar sands.

“The money spent on fracking could be used for putting solar panels on houses. We don’t need to use the amount of energy we do in our materialistic culture,” she said, adding that funding for renewable energy could come from “getting the tax back from bankers”.

The crucial battle for public understanding and approval of UK shale-gas development is under way. 

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