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Fracking Shale: Britain Already Has World’s Toughest Environmental Regulation

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Paul Bowden, Legal Week

Despite the public’s fears about the risks, Britain already has some of world’s toughest environmental laws

An eye-catching new report by the British Geological survey has estimated there is 1,300trn cubic feet of natural gas buried in shale rock beneath northern and central England, higher than previous assessments. Government ministers warn that recoverable levels will be far lower, but it is nevertheless becoming clear that the UK has the potential for a US-style shale gas boom.

At a time when power sources are being decommissioned and major carbon reduction targets are approaching, shale gas could play a vital part in the UK’s pressing energy security need.

Despite the arguments for tapping into shale gas’ potential to plug the energy gap now, the European Commission, while appearing to look upon shale developments in a positive way, has mooted the possibility of an EU-wide regulatory framework.

A light-touch approach appears to be favoured by the EU but, given the energy shortfalls predicted and the looming targets in respect of carbon reduction, what we need now is to apply the strong environmental laws that are already in place and not to create new ones. Doing so could risk delaying the time-critical process of ensuring that the lights don’t go out.

The UK is at a defining moment in respect of the country’s future power generation needs. A fifth of all generation sources are due to be decommissioned by 2020 as plants reach the end of their running lives or are taken offline to meet the UK’s carbon reduction commitments. […]

In the UK, regulatory authorities initially adopted a cautious approach. However, after introducing a moratorium on fracking lasting a year, and following detection of low levels of seismic activity near Blackpool in April/May 2011, the Government announced in December 2012 that it would be lifting the ban. The authorities have since shown positive signs towards shale gas investors, including the recent announcement of tax incentives.

If anything, the real argument in the UK is with the public. Many, including the mainstream press, view fracking with some reservation and tend to focus on the potential risks to the environment and to health and safety. The density of the population in the UK and the fact that the Crown – and not landowners, as is the case in the US – owns hydrocarbons in the ground, point to the need for more engagements with local communities to secure higher levels of public acceptance for shale gas developments.

The Government is now looking into offering incentives to local communities affected by shale gas developments, such as lower energy prices or community projects.

On the regulatory side, the UK can rely on some of the world’s most stringent environmental laws, which in this context will include a requirement to monitor seismic activity at the well before, during and after drilling and the carrying out of an environmental risk assessment. While clarifying guidelines in some areas might be necessary, the signs are that the UK Government sees shale gas playing an important part in the transitioning of our energy needs and wants to streamline the regulatory processes to avoid delays.

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