Fracking in the UK

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“If the UK could be powered by hype alone then shale gas could be the answer,” said Tony Bosworth, climate and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth, at Monday’s Fracking: the Debate on Hydraulic Fracturing for Gas conference in London, sponsored by public sector and government news organisation GovToday. Under discussion at the day-long event were the key issues the UK’s nascent shale gas industry is facing in its attempts to get off (or under) the ground. 

As Bosworth noted, so far there has been more hot air produced than gas. Officially, the government is enthusiastically pro-fracking, with the House of Lords calling it an “urgent” national priority, Chancellor George Osborne saying “We will make it happen”, Prime Minister David Cameron promising that home-fracked gas will be the answer to the nation’s rising energy bills, and justice secretary Chris Grayling projecting that shale gas could make the single biggest difference to the cost of living in the UK. But energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey has cautioned that UK shale production alone can’t be expected to have a significant effect on energy bills, and economist Lord Stern has called the economic arguments for fracking baseless.  

As became clear yesterday as conference speaker after speaker ended on a note of uncertainty and caution, the obvious fact that there isn’t yet a material industry or a supply chain in place is not the main barrier to progress. In fact nobody really knows whether a home front shale gas industry will even be viable, as only one exploratory well has been drilled in the UK to date. A recent article in The Economist blamed, not the usual enviro-protesters, but the government itself for the delay – and this is certainly a rational view given the massive number of regulatory hoops companies must currently jump through even to set up a test site. But yesterday’s event illustrated a more nuanced perspective.

Rather than companies complaining about government regulation – conference speakers universally endorsed a stringently regulated shale gas industry – much of the discussion centred on how public perceptions of fracking in other countries, notably the US, have influenced UK voters’ views and thus politicians’ will to jump-start the industry. One panel member suggested that politicians’ cautious approach may hinge on nervousness about accidents happening in their constituencies. And Dan Byles MP, chair of the all-party Parliamentary committee on unconventional gas and oil, pointed to NIMBYism even among politicians. There could be a “dangerous political moment if MPs who believe fracking only happens in Lancashire or The Weald suddenly find a license in their area that they weren’t expecting,” he said, predicting that this could produce “a political wobble later this year” once the 14th exploratory licensing round is completed.

Roughly half the conference was devoted to discussions around public relations, with surveys from opinion research firm Opinium and the University of Nottingham presented in depth. Attendees seemed to agree that the single most important message, that fracking is safe if done correctly, is “not getting through” and the public is “very confused” (Prof Sarah O’Hara, University of Nottingham).

Adding to the prevailing uncertainty about the future, even experts such as Prof John Loughhead, executive director of the UK Energy Research Centre, were cautious about the science behind the safety claims, saying for example that there is currently “very little information on which to assess the overall environmental impacts” as well as the “many other possible impacts”.

On whether a UK shale gas industry is viable, Loughhead said: “We simply don’t have sufficient data to say much [about the potential extractable resources] with any certainty other than that [shale gas] appears to be an interesting possibility. … The estimation of resources is literally that: on the basis of incomplete knowledge and lack of direct data.” 

So the impression left by the conference is that sector players are feeling a bit helpless as they watch opportunity slowly slipping away. The UK’s infant shale gas industry seems to be on indefinite hold and, while it languishes, public opinion is turning against it before it’s done anything to deserve a bad reputation. Part of stakeholders’ concern over ‘doing it right’ – expressed repeatedly at the conference – can be seen as a strong desire to avoid negative PR. While the consensus is that UK regulations will most likely produce a safe industry, getting that message out is going to be a tough hole to drill. 

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