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UK Dash For Shale Gas A Test For Global Fracking

Thomas K. Grose, National Geographic News

The starting gun has sounded for the United Kingdom’s “dash for gas,” as the media here have dubbed it.

As early as this week, a moratorium on shale gas production is expected to be lifted. And plans to streamline and speed the regulatory process through a new Office for Unconventional Gas and Oil were unveiled last week in the annual autumn budget statement by the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne.

Engineers work on a hydraulic fracturing drilling platform in Preston, Lancashire, United Kingdom.

Drilling at Cuadrilla’s fracking sites in northwest England, seen here last year, were halted after drilling caused two small earthquakes. The incident triggered a U.K. moratorium on shale gas production that may be lifted this week. Photograph by Matthew Lloyd, Getty Images

In the U.K., where all underground mineral rights concerning fossil fuels belong to the crown, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could unlock a new stream of government revenue as well as fuel. But it also means that there is no natural constituency of fracking supporters as there is in the United States, birthplace of the technology. In the U.S., concerns over land and water impact have held back fracking in some places, like New York, but production has advanced rapidly in shale basins from Texas to Pennsylvania, with support of private landowners who earn royalties from leasing to gas companies. (Related: “Natural Gas Stirs Hope and Fear in Pennsylvania”)

A taste of the fight ahead in the U.K. came ahead of Osborne’s speech last weekend, when several hundred protesters gathered outside of Parliament with a mock 23-foot (7-meter) drilling rig. In a letter they delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron, they called fracking “an unpredictable, unregulatable process” that was potentially toxic to the environment.

Giving shale gas a green light “would be a costly mistake,” said Andy Atkins, executive director of the U.K.’s Friends of the Earth, in a statement. “People up and down the U.K. will be rightly alarmed about being guinea pigs in Osborne’s fracking experiment. It’s unnecessary, unwanted and unsafe.”

The government has countered that natural gas-fired power plants would produce half the carbon dioxide emissions of the coal plants that still provide about 30 percent of the U.K.’s electricity. London Mayor Boris Johnson, viewed as a potential future prime minister, weighed in Monday with a blistering cry for Britain to “get fracking” to boost cleaner, cheaper energy and jobs. “In their mad denunciations of fracking, the Greens and the eco-warriors betray the mindset of people who cannot bear a piece of unadulterated good news,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. (Related Quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Natural Gas”)

Energy Secretary Edward Davey, who is expected this week to lift the U.K.’s year-and-a-half-old moratorium on shale gas exploration, said gas “will ensure we can keep the lights on as increasing amounts of wind and nuclear come online through the 2020s.”

A Big Role for Gas

If the fracking plan advances, it will not be the first “dash for gas” in the U.K. In the 1980s, while Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher battled with mining unions, she undercut their clout by moving the nation toward generating a greater share of its electricity from natural gas and less from coal. So natural gas already is the largest electricity fuel in Britain, providing 40 percent of electricity. (Related Interactive: “World Electricity Mix”)

The United Kingdom gets about 10 percent of its electricity from renewable energy, and has plans to expand its role. But Davey has stressed the usefulness of gas-fired plants long-term as a flexible backup source to the intermittent electricity generated from wind and solar power. Johnson, on the other hand, offered an acerbic critique of renewables, including the “satanic white mills” he said were popping up on Britain’s landscape. “Wave power, solar power, biomass—their collective oomph wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding,” he wrote.

As recently as 2000, Great Britain was self-sufficient in natural gas because of conventional gas production in the North Sea. But that source is quickly drying up. North Sea production peaked in 2000 at 1,260 terawatt-hours (TWH); last year it totaled just 526 TWh.

Because of the North Sea, the U.K. is still one of the world’s top 20 producers of gas, accounting for 1.5 percent of total global production. But Britain has been a net importer of gas since 2004. Last year, gas imports—mainly from Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands—accounted for more than 40 percent of domestic demand.

The government hopes to revive domestic natural gas production with the technology that has transformed the energy picture in the United States—horizontal drilling into deep underground shale, and high-pressure injection of water, sand, and chemicals to create fissures in the rock to release the gas. (Related Interactive: “Breaking Fuel From the Rock”)

A Tougher Road

But for a number of reasons, the political landscape is far different in the United Kingdom. Britain made a foray into shale gas early last year, with a will drilled near Blackpool in northwest England. The operator, Cuadrilla, said that that area alone could contain 200 trillion cubic feet of gas, which is more than the known reserves of Iraq. But the project was halted after drilling, by the company’s own admission, caused two small earthquakes. (Related: “Tracing Links Between Fracking and Earthquakes” and “Report Links Energy Activities To Higher Quake Risk”) The April 2011 incident triggered the moratorium that government now appears to be ready to lift. Cuadrilla has argued that modifications to its procedures would mitigate the seismic risk, including lower injection rates and lesser fluid and sand volumes. The company said it will abandon the U.K. unless the moratorium is soon lifted.

A few days ahead of Osborne’s speech, the Independent newspaper reported that maps created for Britain’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) showed that 32,000 square miles, or 64 percent of the U.K. countryside, could hold shale gas reserves and thus be open for exploration. But a DECC spokeswoman said “things are not quite what it [the Independent story] suggests.” Theoretically, she said, those gas deposits do exist, but “it is too soon to predict the scale of exploration here.” She said many other issues, ranging from local planning permission to environmental impact, would mean that some tracts would be off limits, no matter how much reserve they held. DECC has commissioned the British Geological Survey to map the extent of Britain’s reserves.

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