Christopher Pincher is the Member of Parliament for Tamworth. Follow Chris on Twitter.
Shale gas is
back on the agenda in Village Westminster. An all-party group chaired by my colleague Dan Byles was recently launched to a packed audience.
The Select Committee for Energy & Climate Change has also just
published another supportive report (free of carbon targets). DECC has lifted its moratorium on drilling and
is launching a new round of licenses. The
Chancellor has promised proposals on community incentives to support
exploration. And the leader of rhe Greens, Natalie Bennett, has been inveighing
against the horrors of fracking.
Despite the latest
positive pressure, that Green attack continues to be significant. Laying aside for the moment their axiom that
“If it don’t blow, we don’t want to know”, consider the cumulative impact their
tightly-focussed opposition campaign, allied to lazy journalism, complacent
industry PR, sloppy scientific analysis, miniscule geological data and half-hearted political backing, has had on the prospects for shale gas as a significant
energy source, job creator and revenue generator for the United Kingdom.
It has been near disastrous for the industry
and may have set back our energy supply and security policy by several years. Only now are we beginning to see a concerted
rejection of the Green charge sheet. Yet
concerns remain and the doom-merchants still point across the Atlantic, where
shale has revolutionised the energy market, muttering darkly about
environmental disaster. Their claims
must be countered and critiqued. The
myths they market must be exploded. Here they are:
Myth One: Shale gas is different
The first myth
is bound up in the jargon in which all experts like to cloak their
specialism. “Unconventional hydrocarbon”
sounds mysterious, even menacing. And because
it sounds different, people are uncomfortable about it. Yet it is gas, just gas, like any other gas
that heats the home or cooks the dinner.
Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is another baffling buzz term. Yet it is essentially no different to oil or
gas drilling which we have done for years, which have their own dangers, but
which everyone accepts as ordinary and understood. So the first myth to be busted is that shale
gas is different. It is not. The industry itself must stop using strange slang
and stop others from using it too.
Myth 2: There’s no point in exploring for
shale as there isn’t enough of it, anyway
It is hard to assess
accurately the volume of shale gas locked beneath the British Isles, and that
is because no one has done any significant exploratory drilling. However, the British Geological Survey (BGS),
based on geological analysis, estimates UK onshore shale gas reserves to be
5.3 trillion cubic feet (tcf). They also
admit they are really just waving a wet finger in the air, and are happy to
accept the Cuadrilla (who have done a bit of drilling) estimate of 200tcf. Other models suggest there could be much more
shale gas, perhaps even half as much again.
Of course we cannot squeeze every last methane molecule out of the
ground – thinking that is as bonkers as some of the claims made by the anti
lobby. But we can squeeze out a
significant amount (the US recovery rate is 18%), and certainly enough to
support our needs for decades to come.
What we need
is more information. And the way to get
it and bust this myth is for companies to get on with their drilling and for
the government to give them the help they need to do so. And while they are at it, DECC might want to
release the extractable reserve estimates the drilling companies have given to
it – and which they say they are perfectly happy to be published – to scotch
the story that there just is not enough gas to bother about.
Myth 3: Shale
extraction causes earthquakes.
It is true
that there have been tremors reported near the drilling sites in Lancashire and
that fracking contributed to the seismic event. However the two tremors felt at the surface have
not been anywhere near enough to cause any damage. The
fact is that there are seismic movements documented on a daily basis. In March
alone there were 16 tremors across the British Islands of greater intensity than
the movements picked up near Blackpool and Fylde. Though the drilling companies must take care
to reduce the risk of inducing seismic activity, we should not think shale gas
exploration is going to result in earthquakes.
That is just scaremongering.
Remember that coal mining results in landslips, yet no one seriously
cited that as a reason to close the collieries.
Myth 4: Shale gas will have no effect on my
The US now benefits from some of the lowest gas prices in the
world thanks to its shale revolution and it is on the way (once their terminals
are redeveloped) to becoming a gas exporter.
That is not to say that we will benefit in the same way partly because
our gas market is so integrated with Europe.
However, significant exploitation of British shale gas across the
continent could reduce our exposure to hydrocarbon price volatility on the
world markets. That could contribute to
the stabilisation of British energy costs – good for homes and for businesses –
at the very least. Indeed, initial
assessments suggest that production levels of 12bcf per year will start to have
a positive impact on our domestic energy prices.
Myth 5: Shale isn't green.
Those opposed to shale gas development (in fact opposed to almost
any energy source which does not involve wind) claim it will add to our CO2
emissions, not reduce them. Though
no one denies that gas has a carbon footprint, it is far smaller than coal and
oil and can be a viable method of bridging the short-term gap between
hydrocarbons and cleaner fuels such as nuclear. In 2011 42 million tonnes of coal was burnt,
producing 90million tonnes of CO2. Natural gas emits half as much
carbon, saving 45million tonnes per year or 8% of the total CO2
Since the shale explosion in America CO2 emissions have
fallen by 450million tonnes in just five years – more than in any other
country. The global economic slowdown
and other economic factors may have also contributed to this decline but there
is little doubt that shale has been a major factor in the US carbon clean-up.
Shale gas extraction leads to contamination of the water supply
This is frankly
rubbish. The shale deposits are buried
deep, many hundreds of feet beneath the earth.
Aquifers are much closer to the surface.
Between the two lie hundreds of feet of solid rock. Fracking in itself cannot lead to pollutants
permeating the rock and rising up into the water supply. The only way that fracking chemicals can find
their way into the water table is if the well bore hole itself is
compromised. And the efforts to avoid
that, such as boring then concreting twice over to make the bore hole secure,
reduce the risk massively. The ECC
Select Committee found no risk to underground water aquifers whilst further
developments could see chemical free fracking with extraction using vibrations
and sound waves to release the trapped gas.
And lest anyone forget, the chemicals used in fracking do not make you
glow in the dark. They are the sort of
chemicals everyone has under their kitchen sink (and which they flush down the
plug hole) every day.
Myth 7: Shale gas extraction wastes
myth. Shale gas fracking certainly
requires quite a lot of water – but no more than is used to irrigate the
average golf course. And though some of
it stays in the shale beds, much of it is pumped out and carried away for
treatment. It does not all stay
stagnating underground. And as I have already
pointed out, advances in shale science mean new and even cleaner methods of
fracking could soon be on the way.
Shale has the potential to represent 21% of gas
supply to the United Kingdom and that could keep LNG imports below 50% of our
needs. It could, in conjunction with
continental shale deposits, be a significant source of European energy. The Government must remove the obstacles to
successful exploration and extraction of shale gas at scale. It has made a good start by lifting the
drilling moratorium and announcing a new licensing round after too many years
without one. Crucially the government
should look at planning rules for shale drilling. The biggest roadblock most companies
highlight when turning plans on paper into holes in the ground is the negative
reaction of local planning committees.
Clearly winning community acceptance through better local engagement is
essential, and companies that fail to do that are foolish. But we must not be foolish in assuming that
shale gas exploration will now simply forge ahead. Perhaps a Private Member’s Bill in this
session could look at ways of fast-tracking planning applications whilst
ensuring communities are properly involved in the process. The best way to bust the myths about shale
gas is to turn the plans into reality.