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Duel: Is It Time To Frack In Britain?

Prospect Magazine

Climate crisis or the fuel of the future? Benny Peiser and Shaun Spiers battle it out

Britain is on the cusp of a shale gas and oil revolution which could help to rejuvenate the economy and bring cheaper energy to millions of people.

Britain holds one of the biggest shale basins in the world. The British Geological Survey estimates that there could be 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas trapped below the north of England alone. In addition, there are huge reserves of shale oil that lie below many areas of the United Kingdom: recent estimates suggest there could 4.4bn barrels of shale oil in the Weald Basin of southern England and a new report suggests there are even bigger shale oil resources below Leicestershire.

In fact, there are many shale areas in Britain that have not been explored yet. And then there are the country’s gigantic offshore shale reserves which, according to the British Geological Survey, could be five to 10 times bigger than onshore reserves.

In its shale gas report in May 2011, the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee has applied a conservative recovery rate of 10 per cent to estimate the technically recoverable shale gas reserves. In America, however, advances in fracking technology have pushed the average recovery rate to almost 20 per cent. In some cases, up to 30 per cent of unconventional gas has been extracted.

Britain currently consumes around 2.7 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. If 15-20 per cent of the estimated reserves could be economically recovered it would provide Britons with up to 100 years’ worth of natural gas supplies at current consumption rates—offsetting the depletion of the ageing North Sea fields. It could reinvigorate industrial activity in the north of the country and create a new industry.

Britain’s gargantuan shale reserves confirm that the country will have enough cheap and abundant energy for much of the 21st century, which experts believe will be a golden age of gas. Cheaper energy would make British manufacturing more competitive. Gas and electricity bills could fall and the rising trend in fuel poverty could be reversed. In short, the exploration of shale gas is likely to provide a huge boost to UK industry and households. Let’s get fracking.

You make it sound like a gold rush. But is the argument really so simple as saying that if there is lots of oil and gas that could be exploited, it must be exploited, and damn the consequences? Even if this is what you believe, it’s not smart politics when public confidence in fracking is so low.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), an organisation I lead, does not oppose fracking in principle, provided some (fairly exacting) conditions are met. These relate mainly to its impact on the character and tranquility of the countryside; whether it will help us meet our climate change commitments; and whether it is compatible with the sustainable use of water and other natural resources. On all these points, there is considerable doubt.

On climate change, there is an argument that shale gas can be a transition fuel, displacing dirtier coal while we develop cheaper renewables and—almost always forgotten in the political debate—get serious about conserving energy. But this argument certainly does not apply to the shale oil in the Weald and elsewhere.

What of the impact of fracking on the environment and rural communities? It may not be Armageddon, and any downside may be a price worth paying for a reliable supply of cheap, domestically produced fuel that contributes to the fight against climate change. But the government’s own Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of 2013, is hardly reassuring. A very broad range of assumptions underpins the scenarios in the consultation. On the likely duration of vehicle movements in the production development stage, for instance, the range is from 32 to 145 weeks. There is similar uncertainty on water, landscape, air quality and health.

The SEA consultation suggests that we simply do not know enough about the likely impact of fracking to be as gung-ho as you and others (the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and so on) are. And it is partly the gung-ho, gold rush mentality that is alarming reasonable people about fracking. You have not mentioned any downsides. Everything, as you present it, is good.

Is that what you believe? And are there are any environmental considerations that would cause you to reconsider your economically-driven desire to get fracking?

Full debate