Shale gas extraction is going through an uncertain period with the views of engineers and ministers at odds with those of the European Commission. Declan Lynch reports.
While many debate the environmental pros and cons of shale gas production (News), the reality is that it is the government that will set the pace of its development.
And the latest sounds emanating from Westminster appear positive. Only last month chancellor George Osborne announced there would be a “targeted tax regime” to help stimulate investment in shale gas exploration. Osborne wants to emulate the success of developing North Sea gas in the 1970s and 1980s by using private finance.
The chancellor, and many in government and industry, hopes that shale gas production will mirror the cut in energy prices experienced by the US over the past five years.
His tax breaks announcement was greeted with optimism within the shale gas industry, although many have reserved judgement until further details are released. (NCE 25 October)
Key to the debate is the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing - known as fracking - and its possible effects on water supplies and the environment. Another key issue is the impact on greenhouse gas emission of using shale gas as a fuel.
But, the biggest unknown factor is how the government sees shale gas fitting into the nation’s energy mix. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) is consulting on stricter regulations for fracking, with current operations suspended. Decc is also developing its gas strategy. Decisions on both are due in the autumn.
Cuadrilla, the UK’s only current shale gas developer, acknowledges that the issues surrounding fracking are political as anything else. “Exploration of shale gas is not just about geology, but about politics, economics and science,” says Cuadrilla chief executive officer Francis Egan. “The pace of shale gas development
will be set by our directly elected representatives.”
Dan Byles, an MP who sits on the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, agrees there will be a large political dimension to any decision that is made concerning shale gas development.
“Developers have to understand the political risks with shale gas,” says Byles.
He adds that developers must be aware that fickle politicians can and will change the regulation of fracking in response to public opinion: “Decisions are not always
made on logic.”
But MPs, as well as developers and observers of the shale gas sector, would be forgiven for being unsure how safe its development is, especially as it is thought to be capable of triggering earthquakes.
George Osborne wants to emulate the success of developing North Sea gas in the 1970s and 1980s by using private finance.
The energy and climate change select committee, the ICE, the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering all back further shale gas exploration within the safeguards of a robust regulatory framework.
When the select committee approved the technique in May 2011, its committee chair Tim Yeo said there was nothing inherently dangerous about “fracking” itself and that as long as the integrity of extraction wells was maintained shale gas extraction should be safe.
But shortly afterwards it position was called into question when developer Cuadrilla suspended its shale gas drilling at a site in Blackpool following two small tremors - 2.3 magnitude and 1.5 magnitude. An independent report concluded that it was “highly probable” Caudrilla’s drilling caused them. The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering decided to review the process and concluded it was safe if procedures were followed. Its committee chairman Professor Robert Mair said earthquakes and drinking water contamination resulting from drilling were “very low risk”.
But just a few months later, a European Commission report by environmental consultant AEA reignited the controversy when it raised concerns about the same issues.
The report identified eight areas where the risk to the environment are high - including air pollution, groundwater contamination and biodiversity.
With so much debate around the viability and safety of fracking, it is hard to see how our elected officials can make definitive policy decisions.
Recent shale gas developments
May 2011: Energy and climate change committee gives the go-ahead to shale gas drilling following a report looking into the impact it could have on water supplies, energy security and greenhouse gases.
June 2011: Hydraulic fracturing halted on Cuadrilla’s sites until link with recent tremors is established.
November 2011: Independent report concludes it was “highly probable” Cuadrilla’s hydraulic fracturing (fracking) work caused two small tremors in Lancashire.
April 2012: Decc launches consultation on stricter guidelines for hydraulic fracturing following two small tremors at Cuadrilla’s sites in Lancashire.
June 2012: Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering conduct a joint review concluding that hydraulic fracturing is safe if guidelines are robustly followed.
September 2012: Three European Commission reports on shale gas cast major doubts on its ability to contribute to European energy mix.
October 2012: ICE backs further shale gas exploration in an “enhanced regulatory framework” on evidence that its production has brought down US energy prices.
November 2012: Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management warns against fracking.