Fracking: Can and Should Britain do it?

Monday, February 9th, the Energy & Environment Policy Centre held their first panel discussion of the year on the critical and divisive issue of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, or, as it is commonly known, fracking.

Fracking, for the less scientific among us, is the practice of drilling deep into the earth’s crust, and injecting a high-pressure mixture of water and other chemicals into the rock. Hopefully this releases shale gas, a form of natural gas, that is then burned to produce energy.

Making up the panel at the event were two experts on the topic: Dr. Christopher McGlade, a researcher at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, and Mr. Daniel Lawrence, Environmental Counsel at the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

The key message at the beginning of the discussion was that for fracking to be a coherent solution to the UK’s growing energy problems, there were important criteria that needed to be filled, and that this had not yet occurred. Firstly, despite political assertions to the contrary, the UK is currently unsure of how greater ‘reserves’ of shale gas it actually has; reserves being the shale gas that is economically and technically viable to extract. Clearly, this has to be established before further steps are taken.

Secondly, it was made clear that, even if we do have significant reserves, which, as was noted later in the discussion, we most likely do, shale can only be used as ‘transition’ energy, not a solution to our energy problems. Gas is still unsustainable compared to renewables, even if it is more eco than coal.

Thus, if we are to use shale, it was established that, in order to prevent the planet warming by more than the critical two degrees celsius, we must have stopped using it by 2035 at the latest. Other resources elsewhere would also have to be ignored. Considering the motivations of the private companies involved, it was noted that this was only likely to happen if significant international agreements were reached on the use of fossil fuels, something that has not yet occurred.

The discussion then moved from its focus on long-term effects to short-term ones. It was argued that, despite significant environmental protest, shale drilling is not in fact as dangerous as the public may think it is, with one speaker in fact likening it to a ‘pinhole’ operation compared to coal mining. Furthermore, in the US, where shale drilling has been going on for a long time, there have been few immediate environmental effects noted.

However, and this was perhaps the crux of the discussion, it may be the case that in this respect and others, shale is simply unsuited to Britain. The reason could be that we have very high population density, and so drilling would have to occur near population centres. Not only this, but, it was explained that there are ‘sweet-spots’ for shale, in which 10 or more wells are required to tap into all the gas in an economically viable way. Currently, we do not know the environmental effect of these ‘sweet-spots’, and it was posited that the cumulative effect of this concentration would present a high level of environmental disruption where the drilling occurs. This has not been experienced in places like America, because the shale drilling is performed in remote areas, and so is rather an unknown quantity.

Bearing this in mind, it was concluded that perhaps we would be better off simply continuing to buy our gas from the Qataris. This was suggested both in light of the potential for environmental damage, and the reality that it was very unlikely that, if we were to drill for shale, we would be able to persuade the Middle East to leave their resources in the ground.

If you wish to explore these questions further, then the policy centre will be holding a roundtable on the 3rd March with an expert. And, if this should inspire you further, or you want to investigate the issue independently, then get in touch with us about writing a policy recommendation on the topic at editor@kingsthinktank.org.

Roundtable application: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1DFA1NhrdBu69VRDjsxxny9M9qetQliE-dEyHiclpiHo/viewform

George Houghton

Energy & Environment Editor

King’s Think Tank

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