The UK Government has given the go-ahead for hydraulic fracturing for shale gas to resume after moves by Cuadrilla to exploit the unconventional gas in Lancashire was put on hold 18 months ago when the process caused two small earthquakes.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey said yesterday that “fracking”, which uses high-pressure liquid to split rock and extract gas, could resume in the UK, subject to new controls which aim to reduce the risk of seismic activity. He said shale gas represented a promising new potential energy resource for the UK, although it was not yet known what contribution it could make to the energy mix, jobs and the economy.
Mr Davey added that exploiting shale gas in this country would not undermine efforts to cut emissions to tackle climate change and said there were advantages in developing domestic gas supplies.
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”.
Environmentalists believe a continued reliance on gas will 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. Concerns have also been raised, following widespread exploitation of shale resources in the US, that it can cause local environmental problems including polluting water supplies.
Mr Davey said the controls being introduced would include a system requiring operators to stop if seismic activity reached a certain level, magnitude 0.5; well below a quake that could be felt at the surface but higher than normal fracking levels.
Greenpeace energy campaigner Leila Deen said: “Pinning the UK’s energy hopes on an unsubstantiated, polluting fuel is a massive gamble and consumers and the climate will end up paying the price.”
The go-ahead for fracking came as the government’s climate advisers said a continued reliance on gas would push up consumer bills by hundreds of pounds more than if there was a shift towards low-carbon power such as wind. David Kennedy, chief executive of the committee on climate change, said that exploiting shale gas was not a game changer on this side of the Atlantic because it could only meet a relatively small share of gas demand.
Cuadrilla is the only company which has started exploration of shale gas in the UK. It says reserves in Lancashire could supply one-quarter of the country’s gas demand in the future and claims emissions from UK shale gas, managed properly, could be 10% lower than liquefied natural gas imported from Qatar, or piped from Russia. The company had drilled three exploration wells and begun fracking and testing gas flows from one of them when the tremors were detected and the process was suspended last year. It is in the process of drilling a fourth well and hopes to have initial data on how much gas it might be able to extract by the middle of next year.
Yesterday’s decision also paves the way for potential exploration of shale reserves elsewhere in the UK.