Duel: Is it time to frack in Britain?

Climate crisis or the fuel of the future? Our panellists battle it out
June 18, 2014

Britain is on the cusp of a shale gas and oil revolution which could help to rejuvenate the economy and bring cheaper energy to millions of people.

Britain holds one of the biggest shale basins in the world. The British Geological Survey estimates that there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped below the north of England alone. In addition, there are huge reserves of shale oil that lie below many areas of the United Kingdom: recent estimates suggest there could 4.4bn barrels of shale oil in the Weald Basin of southern England and a new report suggests there are even bigger shale oil resources below Leicestershire.

In fact, there are many shale areas in Britain that have not been explored yet. And then there are the country’s gigantic offshore shale reserves which, according to the British Geological Survey, could be five to 10 times bigger than onshore reserves.

In its shale gas report in May 2011, the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has applied a conservative recovery rate of 10 per cent to estimate the technically recoverable shale gas reserves. In America, however, advances in fracking technology have pushed the average recovery rate to almost 20 per cent. In some cases, up to 30 per cent of unconventional gas has been extracted.

Britain currently consumes around 2.7 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. If 15-20 per cent of the estimated reserves could be economically recovered it would provide Britons with up to 100 years’ worth of natural gas supplies at current consumption rates—offsetting the depletion of the ageing North Sea fields. It could reinvigorate industrial activity in the north of the country and create a new industry.

Britain’s gargantuan shale reserves confirm that the country will have enough cheap and abundant energy for much of the 21st century, which experts believe will be a golden age of gas. Cheaper energy would make British manufacturing more competitive. Gas and electricity bills could fall and the rising trend in fuel poverty could be reversed. In short, the exploration of shale gas is likely to provide a huge boost to UK industry and households. Let’s get fracking.

You make it sound like a gold rush. But is the argument really so simple as saying that if there is lots of oil and gas that could be exploited, it must be exploited, and damn the consequences? Even if this is what you believe, it’s not smart politics when public confidence in fracking is so low.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), an organisation I lead, does not oppose fracking in principle, provided some (fairly exacting) conditions are met. These relate mainly to its impact on the character and tranquility of the countryside; whether it will help us meet our climate change commitments; and whether it is compatible with the sustainable use of water and other natural resources. On all these points, there is considerable doubt.

On climate change, there is an argument that shale gas can be a transition fuel, displacing dirtier coal while we develop cheaper renewables and—almost always forgotten in the political debate—get serious about conserving energy. But this argument certainly does not apply to the shale oil in the Weald and elsewhere.

What of the impact of fracking on the environment and rural communities? It may not be Armageddon, and any downside may be a price worth paying for a reliable supply of cheap, domestically produced fuel that contributes to the fight against climate change. But the government’s own Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of 2013, is hardly reassuring. A very broad range of assumptions underpins the scenarios in the consultation. On the likely duration of vehicle movements in the production development stage, for instance, the range is from 32 to 145 weeks. There is similar uncertainty on water, landscape, air quality and health.

The SEA consultation suggests that we simply do not know enough about the likely impact of fracking to be as gung-ho as you and others (the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and so on) are. And it is partly the gung-ho, gold rush mentality that is alarming reasonable people about fracking. You have not mentioned any downsides. Everything, as you present it, is good.

Is that what you believe? And are there are any environmental considerations that would cause you to reconsider your economically-driven desire to get fracking?

I understand that green campaigners object to shale gas development on environmental grounds. But their main concern is its impact on UK energy policy. Cheap and abundant shale gas is a competitive threat to renewable energy—and also to the coal and nuclear industry. Vested interests have turned campaigners against shale, often making use of flawed and misleading environmental arguments.

Shale fracking is an established technology that has been operating in the US for a long time. It is estimated that around 2.5m wells have been fracked worldwide. If there were any significant environmental problems with this process, governments around the world would not be as keen as they are to develop their domestic shale resources.

Assessments undertaken by environmental agencies, but also by the Royal Society and Public Health England, have concluded that shale gas development, with adequate and effective regulations, is unlikely to pose any significant environmental risk.

In the US, where President Barack Obama’s administration is promoting shale gas as a solution to climate change, many green NGOs have begun to accept that unconventional gas is, on balance, better for the environment than most other forms of energy. CO2 emissions in the US have dropped to 1990s levels as shale gas is replacing coal power. Let’s not forget that some renewable energy technologies have a negative

impact on the environment, like deforestation for biofuels or wind turbines that are spoiling the countryside and killing birds.

What is more, renewable energy turns out to be much more expensive and increasingly unpopular. Britons today are much more concerned about their energy bills than they are about climate change. They have become sceptical about renewable energy because rising costs are becoming more obvious—while gas prices have come down as a result of increasing gas supplies.

The shale revolution is inevitable and won’t be stopped. In the US, a growing number of green NGOs are beginning to accept reality and are jumping on Obama’s shale bandwagon. In the UK, green campaigners have been able to hold off fracking for some time, but I doubt the development of UK shale gas will be blocked for much longer.

I cannot speak for other green campaigners, but CPRE’s concern about shale gas development is its impact on the environment, and on the beauty of rural England. We want to be assured that the government is taking well-founded environmental concerns seriously. Unfortunately it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that they are.

Your faith that governments would not embrace fracking if there were significant environmental problems is touching. If governments were that reliable, the world would have no serious environmental problems. Some of my friends are politicians, but you need to watch closely anyone with power.

You say “vested interests have turned campaigners against shale.” There are vested interests everywhere, even in the oil and gas industry, but CPRE has no interests in this debate other than a good outcome for the countryside. A disinterested observer can see that the issue is complex and full of uncertainties. But for the government it seems a done deal. The only role of local authorities will be to wave it through in return for cash. That does not inspire confidence.

I asked you a question earlier: are there are any environmental considerations that would cause you to reconsider your support for fracking? Your response suggests that you dismiss the possibility that fracking might cause unacceptable harm. It is fine in the wide open spaces of the US, so it must also be OK in the English countryside.

The height of a drilling rig is about that of a medium-sized wind turbine, making it a distinctive feature in the landscape, particularly when lit up at night. A single drilling pad could be working around the clock for years. The impact of fracking on rural tranquility could be significant. And what of shale oil? You talk of a “shale revolution,” but do you see shale oil being equally revolutionary or do you share our concerns that it will increase carbon emissions, rather than help us transition to a low carbon future?

The CPRE’s concern regarding the beauty and tranquility of rural England would be more credible if we had seen similar opposition to the construction of thousands of wind and solar farms which are despoiling the countryside. If, as you seem to suggest, the CPRE no longer trusts the government’s environmental agencies and Britain’s stringent environmental regulations, you risk manoeuvring yourself to the outer fringes of the policy debate.

Most people are not aware that in Britain some 2,000 onshore oil and gas wells have been drilled, with about 10 per cent of them having been hydraulically fractured. Today, there are more than 100 producing sites around Britain with 250 operating wells producing between 20,000 and 25,000 barrels of oil per day. This activity has been going on for decades without any significant environmental problems, which is why most Britons have not even noticed.

I would certainly reconsider my support for fracking if the cost of environmental damage evidently outweighed the economic benefits it will generate for the UK economy and British families in general. Whenever you want to build a motorway, a railway or an airport, whenever you intend to build a chemical plant, a factory or a power plant, there will always be an impact on the environment. The only way to decide whether or not to go ahead is to assess the environmental cost against the economic and social benefits. Shale gas extraction is no different. I believe it will be developed because it will generate huge societal benefits.

One of the main differences between your perspective and CPRE’s is that we regard climate change as a major threat and support policies that will help mitigate it. You suggest that we are opposed to fracking, but we are open-minded, partly because of our concern about climate change. The argument that shale gas could help us transition to a low carbon future is worth taking seriously, though it is hard to see how shale oil could do so.

Concern about climate change also leads us to support renewable energy where it does not disproportionately harm the landscape. But we do oppose wind and solar farms that despoil the countryside. We have stopped plenty of inappropriate renewable schemes.

CPRE places great weight on the value of the landscape, but we are not an anti-development organisation (witness our position on HS2 or housing). We will support fracking if we are persuaded that its benefits outweigh the harm it does. But I am not persuaded that fracking will have no discernible environmental impact—indeed, that we will hardly notice it going on.

There may be a lot of shale gas and oil under the ground; extracting it might help solve our energy problems; talking about it will certainly annoy environmentalists. You may think these are good reasons to frack, but they are not sufficient reasons. Unless the government and industry can show they take environmental concerns more seriously than you appear to, they will not win the public’s consent on fracking.

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