THE ENERGY GAP
Is the extraction of shale gas part of the answer to our looming energy gap, or a potential environmental disaster in our crowded island?
Opposition to fracking is rising as demonstrations from Blackpool in Lancashire to Balcombe in Sussex have shown. The government meanwhile seems determined to press ahead with exploratory licensing despite the fact that we are in the run up to a General Election.
The fracking controversy is coming to a head because Britain is facing an energy gap. Coal is a declining source of energy. Old nuclear power stations are being decommissioned and negotiations with energy companies about the strike price for new plants are lengthy. Fears about nuclear power after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents left politicians reluctant to invest in new plants around the turn of the century. UK natural gas production has been declining at 8% a year since 2000. Despite government support for renewables, the fact remains that water, wind and bio-energy account for a small percentage of our energy supply.
Then there is Russia. Recent events have increased a desire for the EU and the UK to be less dependent on Vladimir Putin’s gas and coal.
The process of fracking extracts gas from shale rock by pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into fissures one or two miles down. The gas and waste water then flow up to the surface.
The chemicals used are commercially confidential and that has proved controversial with environmentalists.
Estimates vary as to how much shale gas there is under the UK. A recent report commissioned by the Department for Energy and Climate Change suggested that fracking could deliver 25% of the UK’s gas needs by the middle of the next decade. Other experts feel it will take much longer for shale gas to be produced in volume and that cheaper Russian gas will continue to be attractive. Indeed a key question will be the impact of shale gas on household bills.
The American experience looms large. There has been a 75% increase in United States natural gas reserves due to fracking. Gas prices have reduced from $12 to $3 per million British thermal units By 2020 the US will be exporting gas. However whilst states like Pennsylvania have embraced fracking, New York maintains a moratorium. Also when comparing the US with the UK, the major issue of population density must be taken into consideration. Another important difference is that American landowners own the mineral rights beneath their land whereas here they are the property of the Crown.
Currently there is a promise that £100,000 plus 1% of total revenues will be paid to local communities where fracking takes place. The question is will this be enough to buy off residents who fear groundwater contamination, methane leakage and incessant tanker movements on country lanes? The government insists that a tough regulatory regime will be in place and cite the cautious approach Ministers have taken so far. That includes a moratorium on test drilling when it was suggested that natural seismic movements under Blackpool might have been caused by exploratory work.
The conference will be held eight months before the General Election. Some of the most promising shale gas fields are under marginal constituencies in the North and the fracking debate could well become an election issue. Claims for the level of public support for fracking vary widely. An industry commissioned opinion poll claimed recently that opposition was down to 24%. A poll for the Guardian and Nottingham University suggested the nation is split fifty fifty.
However enthusiastic national government is to press on with fracking, it is local councillors who have to give planning permission. Some are questioning their expertise to make such crucial decisions.
On this crowded island fracking pitches local communities and environmentalists against those with responsibility for keeping the lights on.