Is Britain up for shale?

Posted by Graham Thompson — 28 July 2014 at 5:49pm - Comments
All rights reserved. Credit: Greenpeace
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In twenty years’ time, when Britain is transformed into a green and pleasant Texas with oil and gas fracking wells on every corner, you may find yourself asking ‘when exactly did we agree to let this happen?’ Well, the answer is today. The 28th of July, 2014 saw our government announce the fourteenth licensing round and put Britain up for shale. Is this something you need to worry about? We think so.

How big is it (and will it be in my backyard)?

One of the common confusions about fracking is the amount of gas (or oil) Britain is likely to extract. Respected analysts E3G claim that the proportion of EU gas demand that can be met by shale is a theoretical 10%, but a mere 2-3% in practice (IEA estimate). And as that gas would be sold on international markets, it won’t affect the price paid by consumers, a fact admitted by the government and the industry.

And as for your backyard, the government has put over half of the UK ‘up for shale’, including two-thirds of England. So you could be facing fracking under your doorstep.

But as it’s such a little thing, it’s very unlikely to affect me, right?

Well, no, unfortunately. In order to fulfil even these modest ambitions, the fracking industry will have to drill many, many thousands of wells. With fracking you don’t get much from each well, far less than from a conventional well, and so they need a lot more wells to get the same amount of fuel. Hence the US having fracked 100,000 wells so far. And the UK’s geology means that shale beds here are likely to be smaller and more fragmented, whilst extraction is likely to be harder, meaning even more wells. Analysis from Bloomberg says we would need up to 20,000 wells to replace gas imports. However, in an interview today the British Geological Society warned that even sinking 1,000 shale wells every year would not impact energy security.

But I’m OK – I live in a City/National Park/over an aquifer/in a cabinet minister’s constituency, they won’t frack here surely?

The 14th licensing round covers all of our ten biggest cities, ten of our thirteen national parks, 47% of our aquifers, and 77% of current cabinet ministers’ constituencies. Ministers are making warm noises about protecting National Parks, but they’re still included in the licensing round and there are giant loopholes that could allow fracking all over these protected areas, and there are already plans to frack the South Downs National Park going through the planning process.

What are the risks?

Well there are quite a few, actually. Concerns include methane contamination of drinking water; accidental spillages of fracking fluid contaminating waterways; minor earthquakes and landslides; problems disposing of contaminated fracking fluid; and noise, disruption and local air pollution from lorries and rig operations. Not to mention climate change.

But things will be better regulated over here, right?

That’s what the government is telling us. That’s the same government that has crippled the regulators by enforcing cuts that resulted in the Environment Agency shedding 15% of its workforce. Shale gas has low profit margins. A bit more regulation could make the gas, or oil, too expensive to extract, and the government has so far been very keen to drop any restrictions which the industry don’t like. For example, under current law you have the right to refuse frackers permission to drill under your property. The government have announced that they intend to tear up that right and give it to the frackers.

But gas is a clean fuel, so it’s not all bad, right?

Natural gas is cleaner than coal, so if your shale gas replaces coal (and that coal isn’t just burnt somewhere else) then you should get lower emissions. But digging up new fossil fuels is yesterday’s answer to energy needs, and one that has created today’s climate problems. The International Energy Agency advise that two-thirds of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground if we are to have a chance of combatting the impacts of climate change. Industry estimates show a UK fracking industry would peak in the mid-2030’s by which time we need to be deep into decarbonising our economy. Exploiting shale reserves in this way will bust apart recently agreed carbon budgets.  

What’s more, fracking releases ‘fugitive emissions’ of methane. If more than 3% of the gas coming up escapes, then shale gas is actually worse than coal, and studies of the level of fugitive emissions in the US have produced figures as high as 11%. If you want clean energy, there are much better options.

So how can we stop it?

Whilst there is still much debate around the size of our shale formations and whether they’re economically viable, we know the UK has the biggest wind, wave and tidal power potential in Europe. Solar prices are plummeting, to a level where even cloudy northern European countries like Germany can get substantial power from the sun. But the obvious answer, the cheapest, fastest and cleanest of all energy solutions, is efficiency. Who could object to consumers, businesses and our government giving less money to foreign multinationals, cutting pollution of all kinds without any drop in our comfort or convenience? Well someone must do, because it isn’t happening.

You can be in favour of exploiting shale reserves. And you can be in favour of combatting climate change. But you can’t be in favour of both at the same time.

Find out more about today's announcement here, here and here.

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