MPs hear debate on shale gas

Politicians are paying more attention to the benefits and pitfalls of developing the UK’s shale gas deposits. But they are hearing conflicting messages from NGOs, government bodies and industry.

The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has been warned of the potential for shale gas developments to disrupt renewables investment, worsen climate change and pollute groundwaters.

But the MPs have also heard evidence that not developing the UK’s deposits presents greater environmental and economic risks than going ahead with it.1

The mixed messages come as Lichfield-based firm Cuadrilla Resources plans to hydraulically fracture the UK’s first shale gas well near Blackpool (ENDS Report 430, pp 38-41).

At the first oral evidence session of the shale gas enquiry on 9 February, Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research told the MPs that “the only way to stop [climate change] is to keep it in the ground”.

 “Anything that takes away incentives from renewables cannot be a good thing,” added the lead author of the centre’s recent report on shale gas, which called for a moratorium on its development in the UK (ENDS Report 432, p 13).

Key to its extraction is the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This liberates gas trapped in the rock by exposing it to a mixture of highly pressurised water, sand and chemical additives.

It is a controversial practice, with “anecdotal evidence of water contamination”, said Professor Anderson. Poor construction of  shale gas wells have also been blamed.

His comment provoked a testy exchange with Dr Philip Lee MP. “I am slightly anxious about the word ‘anecdotal’. I suggest we should use proper evidence,” he said.

But although there are thousands of shale gas wells in the US, there is no comprehensive and independent source of information on them and their potential to pollute.

This should be resolved by a US environmental protection agency report, due to be published next year. Meanwhile, the lack of reliable data is feeding US public opposition – with similar opposition emerging in the UK. Friends of the Earth and the Co-operative have called for a moratorium until concerns are addressed, and people living near Cuadrilla’s well have raised objections to it.

Jenny Banks, energy and climate change policy officer at WWF UK, also gave oral evidence. She was sceptical that shale gas will play any major part in the European gas market before 2020, a position echoed by energy regulator Ofgem, and the energy and climate department (DECC).

Barriers to developing UK shale gas include low availability of drilling rigs, smaller deposits, tougher regulation and greater population density than the US.

These issues undermine the argument that shale gas could be used as a relatively low-carbon bridge to a renewables-only electricity supply, she concluded. The UK’s electricity should be largely decarbonised by 2030, according to the Committee on Climate Change (ENDS Report 431, pp 12-13).

But these concerns were contradicted by submissions to the inquiry, and at a public meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas on 8 February.

Energy security

Proponents of shale gas say it would boost UK energy security, while ensuring an early phase out of carbon-heavy coal-fired infrastructure.

In written evidence, industry expert Nick Grealy said the limited short-term solution of shale gas should not be neglected in favour of the full but long-term solution of renewables. “Delaying partial decarbonisation also makes the cumulative impact of carbon more problematic still in 2050.”

At the group’s meeting, he rejected the notion there were serious barriers to developing European shale gas. Mr Grealy predicted that confirmation of the UK’s potential would come this year, and that it would “change everything.”

Paul Stevens, author of a Chatham House report on the subject, was more cautious. An array of regulatory issues must be addressed, he said, but such problems “are not insurmountable, if the will is there.”

Meanwhile, former environment minister Huw Irranca-Davies and other MPs have asked a series of parliamentary questions on shale gas. Answers revealed the government has rejected calls for a moratorium, and does not believe the regulatory framework needs amending. But this will be “kept under review,” according to his successor, DEFRA junior minister Richard Benyon.

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