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UK green light for shale gas

14 June 2011

Shale gas drilling in the UK has been given the go-ahead by MPs in a new report looking at the impact it could have on water supplies, energy security and greenhouse gas emissions.

The inquiry found no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process involved in shale gas extraction - known as ’fracking’ - poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers provided the drilling well is constructed properly. The committee concluded that, on balance, a moratorium in the UK is not justified or necessary at present.

The MPs, however, urged the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) to monitor drilling activity extremely closely in its early stages in order to assess its impact on air and water quality.

“There has been a lot of hot air recently about the dangers of shale gas drilling, but our inquiry found no evidence to support the main concern - that UK water supplies would be put at risk, said Tim Yeo MP, chair of the Committee.

There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of ’fracking’ itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe,” said Yeo. “The Government’s regulatory agencies must of course be vigilant and monitor drilling closely to ensure that air and water quality is not being affected.”

Shale gas extraction could reduce the UK’s dependence on imported gas, but it is unlikely to have a dramatic effect on domestic gas prices, according to the report.

The British Geological Survey estimates that the UK’s onshore shale gas resources could be as large as 150 billion cubic metres – equivalent to roughly 1.5 years of total UK gas consumption and worth approximately £28 billion at current prices.

The UK’s potential offshore reserves could “dwarf” onshore supplies, however, and the committee calls on the Government to encourage the development of the offshore shale gas industry in the UK. Worldwide shale gas could add 40% to recoverable natural gas resources, mostly in China and the US.

“Onshore shale gas reserves in the UK could be quite considerable and will certainly help us increase our energy security - though not, unfortunately, very dramatically,” said Yeo. “Offshore reserves may be much higher and, while more costly to recover, could potentially deliver self-sufficiency in gas for the UK at some point in the future.”

Greenhouse gas emissions from gas are lower than from coal, but are still much higher than many low-carbon technologies - like nuclear, solar or wind power. Concerns have been raised about shale gas, because it is made up of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. However, methane would only be released through leaks from the well or pipelines and the MPs are confident that this can be easily minimised through regulation and enforcement.

“It is understandable that environmentalists have concerns about methane emissions from shale gas after YouTube videos from the US apparently showed people setting fire to tap water,” Yeo noted. “Regulations in the UK are stronger than in the States and should stop anything of the sort from happening here.”

Shale gas could reduce carbon dioxide emissions globally, according to the report, by encouraging a switch from coal to gas for electricity generation, particularly in developing economies. However, it will not be sufficient to meet long term emissions reductions targets and avoid the worst effects of global climate disruption.

Committee chair Yeo concluded: “Shale gas could encourage more countries to switch from coal to gas, which in some cases could halve power station emissions. But if it has a downward effect on gas prices it could divert much needed investment away from lower carbon technologies like solar, wind, wave or tidal power.

“The emergence of shale gas increases the urgency of bringing carbon capture and storage technology to the market and making it work for gas as well as coal.”

Commenting on the report, Mark Miller, chief executive of Cuadrilla Resources, said: “The Committee has carried out a very thorough investigation, including spending a day examining our Blackpool operations in great detail. We also gave detailed written evidence and provided several hours of oral evidence at Westminster.

“We have always supported the case for maintaining the present stringent regulatory standards in the UK to continue to provide clear precautionary safeguards against the concerns which have been highlighted and much debated in the United States, where regulatory standards differ.

“We will continue to operate our sites as exemplar on-shore natural gas projects and to continue to set a European bench-mark for use of state-of-the-art equipment combined with the most stringent site standards, operating procedures and precautionary safeguards.

“Cuadrilla will continue to maintain its high standards for exploration of natural gas from shale in the UK and across Europe and to work closely with all the regulatory agencies on an on-going basis.”

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