Given the amount of attention shale gas drilling has attracted recently, one could be forgiven for thinking there was a large, unregulated industry in operation in the UK. The is far from the reality. Shale gas exploration is just beginning here and is governed by one of the most robust and stringent regulatory frameworks in the world.
Shale gas is found trapped underground in shale rock and is released by creating narrow fissures using a technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”. This method uses a fluid, made up almost entirely of water and sand, pumped at high pressure into the rock to create millimetre-wide cracks to allow the gas to escape.
Currently, there is only one shale gas project in the UK where there has been any fracking. The site, near Blackpool, is operated by Cuadrilla, who have drilled two exploratory wells, with another currently being drilled.
Another operator, Coastal Oil and Gas, is moving forward with plans to drill exploration wells in south Wales, mainly for coalbed methane, as well as for shale gas, but they have no current plans for fracking.
The success of shale gas exploration in the US has rightly put the spotlight on the importance of industry regulation. In the UK, shale gas operations are regulated by the same rigorous regime that all oil and gas operators must adhere to.
From the outset, each application must go through the local planning application process and before any drilling occurs proposals must also be scrutinised by the Environment Agency to make sure there is no risk to the environment, and in particular to water sources; by the health and safety executive for safety; and by my department to ensure best use is made of the resources.
As part of this process, operators are required to disclose the content of fracking fluids to the Environment Agency. Cuadrilla have in fact published this information on their website, and nearly all, 99.96%, of the fluid used has been made up of fresh water and sand. The remaining 0.04% was made from polyacrylamide, commonly used in cosmetics. Other additives which might be used in future operations include hydrochloric acid, typically at a concentration of 0.125% or biocide at a concentration of 0.0005%, which can be used if needed to purify the water used in the process.
Cuadrilla will make absolutely certain that, as is always the case, the well is carefully engineered to protect the aquifer, which is not one used for drinking water.
The Environment Agency has carefully reviewed Cuadrilla’s operations, and does not consider that there is a risk to the environment – including water resources.
This scrutiny by the regulators is why we believe that shale operations, as they are being proposed in the UK, are safe.
It is also why we believe there is no need for a moratorium on shale gas operations. The House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee agree. After a thorough inquiry that considered the facts, including oral and written statements from the Tyndall Centre, the select committee concluded that there was no evidence that fracking poses a direct risk to underground water aquifers, provided the drilling well is constructed properly.
But we are not taking anything for granted and we remain vigilant to ensure current and future operations remain safe.
Fracking at Cuadrilla’s Blackpool site is currently suspended while an investigation is conducted into reported seismic activity nearby. I will not consider further fracking for shale gas until the results of these studies have been carefully evaluated.
The potential for unconventional gas is worth exploring because of the additional security of supply it could provide but it is important to stress it is very early days for shale gas.
Any development will not temper the government’s firm and unbending commitment to safety and environmental protection and must sit with our plans for a strong portfolio of energy sources as we move to a low carbon economy, including renewables, nuclear and clean coal and gas.
• Charles Hendry is minister of state for the Department of Energy and Climate Change