We shale keep using fossil fuels!

unsplash_52af24879b3cb_1– Catherine Caine (LLM Environmental Law and Policy, Newcastle University) c.a.caine@newcastle.ac.uk

Last week brought both the news that the UK’s shale gas reserves are greater than expected and the fact that the UK is not on track to hit its climate change targets through the 2020s. It has been argued that whilst shale gas is cleaner than coal, it is still a fossil fuel and will not help the UK towards meeting its climate targets within the European Union. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is committed to ensuring that the net UK emissions of carbon dioxide are 80% lower in the year of 2050, than they were in 1990. In addition to this, the UK is also required to increase its renewable energy production to fifteen percent by 2020 under the 2009 European Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources. However, despite these targets, the coalition government remains undeterred from its march towards the exploitation of shale gas.

It is believed that there is as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas expected at the Bowland site in Lancashire. Shale gas is extracted using the controversial process of fracking. Fracking is the process whereby rock is fractured using high pressure jets of water in order to gain access to the trapped gas within. The process is big in America where it has brought down energy prices, and ensured that America can use its own resources instead of importing from other states. Conversely, in the UK, the process was banned in 2011 after exploration in the Blackpool area led to earth tremors. This ban has now been lifted, as theories concerning earth tremors have been dispelled. However, the concern of tremors has been replaced with a new fear of water contamination caused by the chemicals and sand that are blasted into the rocks deep below the earth.

Lawrence Carter from Greenpeace claims that “the idea that shale gas is going to get the economy moving again is groundless” and Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth believes that “shale gas is not the solution to the UK’s energy challenges. Its potential has been hugely over-hyped and there’s little evidence it will drive down fuel prices.” Whether you love or hate shale gas, the Coalition Government is determined to push through with plans. With at least £100,000 in benefits on offer to each Community that decides to exploit shale gas, along with 1 per cent of the overall revenues – the offer is certainly tempting. Nevertheless the question remains: will financial encouragement be enough to entice Communities to get involved with the scheme?

Shale gas wells require permits from the Environment Agency, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, as well as permission from health and safety officials before they can be built. Despite the long list of permissions required, it has been argued that the largest obstacle facing shale gas exploitation is support from local authorities. The Chief Executive of the UK Onshore Operators Group, Ken Cronin, believes that planning is the “most difficult part” for firms wanting to explore shale gas.  He argues that shale gas exploitation is not a new venture as we have been drilling wells for oil and gas for a considerable amount of time in the UK. Nonetheless, with the additional publicity that shale gas has received concerning Earth tremors, and water pollution, local authorities will be left with a decision to take the financial gain and face the consequences, or to play it safe and risk being left behind.

Only the test of time will tell how many local authorities give consent to shale gas exploitation in their area, however with constant threats that the monies raised will not necessary benefit local communities – it is far from certain whether shale gas will be able to provide an adequate solution to our energy problems.

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