Opinion: Shale Gas exploration – Why a cautious approach is the right one.

Many Liberal Democrats will, like me, have read with wry amusement the reaction of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph and some Tory MPs to the local opposition to Cuadrilla drilling in Balcombe in Sussex and the potential of fracking in their area given their previous hysterical support for fracking and shale gas.

Clearly there are a number of groups who are taking the opportunity to mount a vigorous campaign against fracking with, for example, the publication of a map of a “licence to frack” raising fears of fracking taking place across the country. In fact the so called “licence to frack” is nothing of the sort. It is simply where licences have been given for any onshore oil and gas drilling.

Before any actual drilling could occur there would need to be planning applications to the relevant local authority as well as permissions from the Environment Agency, Health and Safety Executive and in the case of fracking DECC as well.

In my view it is important that Liberal Democrats maintain a cautious approach, as Ed Davey has set out. It is right to be cautious about the potential of shale gas production in this country, but being open to exploring what that potential is, as long as concerns about the impact on the environment, water pollution, seismic activity and impact on GHG emissions can be satisfactorily dealt with.

From a position of being largely self sufficient in gas at the turn of the century, with the decline of North Sea gas production the UK faces the prospect of importing over half of its gas needs by the end of this decade. If shale gas can be produced economically in the UK surely it is better to produce more gas domestically rather than ship it in from around the world. Electricity generation accounts for only a quarter of gas consumption so we will continue to be reliant on gas for heating for several decades even under the most optimistic projections for decarbonisation. Our carbon emissions will be no greater using domestic gas than using gas from overseas and we could benefit from substantial tax revenues, investment and jobs.

So what about the concerns about water pollution and earth tremors? These issues were looked at in detail by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in 2012 at the request of the Liberal Democrat Secretary of State in DECC and they concluded that with appropriate regulation there were no reasons why these concerns should materialise. In accepting this report Ed Davey made clear that shale gas exploration could only proceed on a cautious basis with these protections and regulations in place.

Many local communities have genuine concerns about the environmental and visual impact of shale gas exploration in their areas. That is why it is important that planning decisions for shale gas exploration and production are made by local authorities, just as they are for other forms of energy generation such as onshore wind. Liberal Democrats in government have been at pains to ensure that as far as practicable similar rules on planning and community benefit apply to shale gas as they do for other energy.

The fact is we do not know what the potential for shale gas production is in this country, but we will not know unless we do exploration to find out. And even if we do that exploration it is very unlikely that there will be any substantial shale gas production this decade. So the debate about shale gas is irrelevant to our urgent need to invest in low carbon electricity generation to meet our renewable energy targets for 2020. That is where our focus should be.

Q and A on some of the most frequently asked questions about shale gas and fracking

* Stephen Gilbert is Liberal Democrat MP for St Austell and Newquay and chairs the Regional Aviation All Party Parliamentary Group

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  • The other point relevant to this debate is that we should not be adding to fossil fuel reserves to be burnt, as the burning of existing identified resources is almost certain to lead to unsafe rises in world average temperatures. Unless we believe that we should still be discovering new reserves, so we can have a choice about which we burn (seems to be inviting future conflict, that idea!)

  • A very sensible viewpoint. The views on fracking expressed to date have been so predictable – right wingers as pro fracking as they are anti windfarms, while left wingers have been the opposite.

    We should keep our minds open on fracking, but we do need to be cautious.

  • “there are a number of groups who are taking the opportunity to mount a vigorous campaign against fracking”

    We should remember that once a planning application has been formally submitted, the plan process severely limits opposition to the plans that have been submitted, hence this on it’s own justifies why as soon as you hear a rumour about fracking etc. you stand up and shout, as you may not get an opportunity to formally question the viability of the development once the plans have been submitted.

  • @Simon Shaw – good post.
    This is a key reason why I’ve moved away from supporting the connection of wind turbines to the national grid and now regard it as a waste of time and undeserving of taxpayer subsidies (whether directly from government or through levies on energy bills).

    However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t a future for wind turbines; we just need to find processes that can be run as and when the wind blows, a candidate that is already being investigated is the production of ammonia feedstock for fertilizer production through the electrolysis of water rather than through the industrial conversion of natural gas or LPG.

  • It took millions of years to create North Sea Oil. We burnt it in half a lifetime. Now we have a second chance. We have found more fuel which we can burn for a few decades. Then what?

    Leave it in the ground. Buy from someone else fool enough to sell gas to us at today’s knock-down price. In thirty years the world will be desperate for gas, and the price will have rocketed.

  • Michael Seymour 10th Aug '13 - 7:40am

    About three years ago I saw a documentary made in the USA about Fracking, it is called ‘Gasland’ and reveals some of the hazards of Fracking. These include water coming through taps which burst into flames, serious medical problems, and the abuse of property rights. This documentary should be shown to the public before any decisions are made.

  • David Allen concludes :
    “Leave it in the ground. Buy from someone else fool enough to sell gas to us at today’s knock-down price. In thirty years the world will be desperate for gas, and the price will have rocketed.”
    Wow! Top of the class for that idea. And for anyone who is interested to know why David is right, just Google ‘ Export Land Model ‘. The export land model is something that comes to all oil producing nations eventually, and explains why in 20 to 30 years time Saudi Arabia will be kicking themselves for letting oil go at $10 to $15 dollars a barrel thruought the 1950’s

  • Simon McGrath 10th Aug '13 - 9:28am

    @Michael – its true that they show water coming out of taps being set fire to. What they don’t tell you is that it has nothing to do with fracking and has been happening since the 1930s.

  • Clear Thinker 10th Aug '13 - 10:49am

    That “water coming out of taps and being set fire to always” puzzled me. How does it happen?

    In the US as well as the UK, water is taken from surface reservoirs and from water wells and routed through pipes to purification systems which remove any potentially harmful substances and in some case chlorinate or fluoridate it, before being routed along clean pipes to local tanks, then along more clean pipes to households. Given the potential for huge medical problems if the systems don’t function correctly, I’d hope there would really be a strong focus on water companies making sure everything is working properly.

    Third world yes, but even the Americans can’t be so incompetent as to have a public water purification system that doesn’t notice a flammable gas!

  • Simon McGrath 10th Aug '13 - 11:09am

    The explanation of the ‘water being set on fire’. The makers of gasland knew this – they chose to ignore it.

    @Clear thinker – its rural america so lots of water comes from wells.

  • Clear Thinker 10th Aug '13 - 11:17am

    Thanks! Very helpful, fair, and informative.

  • Peter Chivall 10th Aug '13 - 1:21pm

    Apart from the odd comment referring to CCS , contributors seem to be unaware of the overriding need to do something about CO2 levels in the atmosphere before larger areas of the Earth’s surface become unproductive deserts while acidification of the oceans threatens to inhibit survival of zooplankton (with carbonate exoskeletons) and threatens the food chain which supports fish stocks worldwide. Food prices have increased at least 50% since 2010 and speculative trading can only succeed on the basis of underlying shortage.
    What’s the use of having cheap gas if the seas and forests are dying and the changing climate makes larger areas of our world uninhabitable. Not that Fracked gas will be cheap – it’s as likely to be as costly as LPG from Qatar, even including the cost of bulk tankering.
    The cheapest gas is the cubic foot you don’t have to burn – if the same indirect subsidy through tax breaks would be applied to making the Green Deal, currently stalled for lack of finance, a real success, the cut in demand for heating gas in our homes would cut prices just as much as any supposed benefit from large quantities of shale gas.

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