Get fracking: Govt lifts ban on controversial shale gas extraction

Posted on 13 Dec 2012 by Tim Brown

The Government today gave permission for fracking to resume across the UK despite the unconventional gas extraction technique having caused two minor earthquakes in Blackpool in 2011.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey this morning (Thursday) lifted a ban on the drilling for shale gas, which was put in place after the UK’s first project near Lancashire caused tremors last year.

Following the tremors, the Department for Energy and Climate Change asked three experts to make an independent assessment. According to the BBC, their report indicated that future earthquakes as a result of fracking could not be ruled out – but the risk from these tremors was low and structural damage extremely unlikely.

Britain has trillions of cubic feet of shale gas covering up to 60% of the countryside but environmental groups and rural communities are concerned the landscape could be scarred and polluted.

Mr Davey said he was putting in place tough new environmental controls to reduce the risk of seismic activity. He also insisted that exploiting shale gas in this country would not undermine efforts to cut emissions to tackle climate change.

The Treasury has already signalled its support for the budding industry, proposing tax relief for shale gas, and unveiling a gas generation strategy which potentially paves the way for a new “dash for gas”.

Mr Davey said “Fracking must be safe and the public must be confident that it is safe… And, as the industry develops, we will remain vigilant to all emerging evidence to ensure fracking is safe and the local environment is protected.”

The controls will include a traffic light system, requiring operators to stop if seismic activity reaches a certain level, magnitude 0.5, which is well below a quake that could be felt at the surface but higher than normal fracking levels.

But environmentalists warn that a continued reliance on gas would prevent the UK meeting targets to cut emissions and tackle climate change, and that shale has no place in the move to a low-carbon economy.

In the US, exploitation of shale gas boom has sent energy prices tumbling, and the Prime Minister has expressed hopes that the UK can enjoy a similar boom.

According to the BBC, the UK won’t benefit from substantially lower prices unless the rest of Europe decides to back shale gas too, as Europe has a gas grid that allows gas to be traded to the highest bidder.

The chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, David Kennedy, who was recently vetoed by David Cameron as the new Permanent Secretary at Department of Energy and Climate Change dismissed claims that exploiting shale gas in the UK and Europe could push down gas prices.

He said it was not a “game changer” on this side of the Atlantic as it could only meet a relatively small share of gas demand.

The first company to drill for Britain’s shale gas – Cuadrilla Resources – will now be able to resume its operations near Blackpool.

“Today’s news is a turning point for the country’s energy future. Shale gas has the potential to create jobs, generate tax revenues, reduce our reliance on imported gas, and improve our balance of payments,” said Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources.

“Our exploration has shown that under Lancashire there is a belt of gas-filled shale over one mile thick. Today’s decision will allow continued exploration and testing of the UK’s very significant shale resources in a way that fulfils the highest environmental and community standards.”

Steve Radley, Director of Policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, normally stern criticisers of recent government energy policy, said “The government continues to demonstrate a shift to a more balanced energy policy.

“Shale gas is a potentially game changing resource… as we continue to struggle to rebalance our economy and balance our books, we cannot ignore this potentially significant resource. Well-regulated exploration is the sensible approach.”

Coal seam methane gas

Despite being less well known than Shale Gas, Coal Bed Methane, is, if anything, somewhat more advanced in the British Isles than Shale Gas and poses as large or larger threat to communities and the environment.

In Australia coal seam methane gas is extracted using similar fracking techniquies. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, vast amounts of methane appears to be leaking undetected from Australia’s biggest coal seam gas field, according to world-first research that undercuts claims by the gas industry.

Testing inside the Tara gas field, near Condamine on Queensland’s Western Downs, found some greenhouse gas levels over three times higher than nearby districts, according to the study by researchers at Southern Cross University.

Unlike shale gas, the coal seams that are exploited in this process tend to be relatively close to the surface, usually less than 1000 metres down, whereas the Bowland Shale in Lancashire can be at depths of more that 3000 metres.

The closer proximity to the surface combined with the fact that it almost always involves pumping large quantities of water out of the coal seam (water that has been marinading in coal for thousands of years) means that the problems with water pollution and leaking methane tend to occur regardless of whether fracking is performed.

Being closer to the surface the chances of methane migrating to surface (with the effects of fracking) are higher and the large amounts of water that need to be pumped out of the coal seam and disposed of, means there is a possibility of water contamination.