Monday, 28 July 2014
All fracked up
Sooner or later if the government’s plan comes off there will be a shale gas fracking site near you. Or you will have a friend or family member who lives near one.
That’s because around 3,000 wells could be drilled at more than 1,000 sites across the country in order to deliver up to a fifth of the country’s annual gas demand to an increasingly power hungry society - welcome to Fracking GB plc!
Today the government began a new round of licensing for onshore oil and gas, which opens up around half of the UK to potential fracking, including national parks in ‘exceptional circumstances’.
The licences are the first step towards exploration but firms will also have to obtain planning consent, permits from the Environment Agency and a sign-off from the Health and Safety Executive.
Fracking involves blasting water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale rock formations deep under ground to release the gas held inside.
In announcing the so-called 14th onshore licensing round, Business and Energy Minister Matthew Hancock said: "Unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth.
"We must act carefully, minimising risks, to explore how much of our large resource can be recovered to give the UK a new home-grown source of energy."
Today’s Guardian newspaper reports the government has committed nearly £2.5m of public money to an office to encourage fracking - before a single home has been powered by shale gas.
David Cameron has said the UK is going "all out for shale", with his government offering tax breaks to fracking companies and promising local authorities they will be able to keep 100% of the business rates from fracking operations, rather than 50% as before.
Previously unreleased figures show that the Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil (Ougo) - set up in March 2013 to encourage the development of shale gas and oil and coal bed methane - has already spent £568,000 and has been awarded a budget of £1.8m for this financial year.
There are already people living near fracking sites in the north of the country whose homes have been blighted - making insurance difficult and expensive, and significantly reducing property values.
"In pushing forward with their fracking fantasy, Cameron and co are riding roughshod over the climate science," said Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party.
"The science overwhelmingly indicates that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves need to be left underground if we are serious about meeting internationally agreed climate commitments."
She said fracking would add to the huge financial risk of the carbon bubble and called for the use of renewable and conservation technologies to build a sustainable energy policy.
"We need a government that doesn’t want to sacrifice our homes and communities for the profits of oil and gas firms while ignoring the pressing reality of climate change," she added.
The renewable wind power industry has had to deal with a broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact, and so far this doesn’t seem to be on the shale gas radar.
But type ‘shale gas rig’ into an internet search engine and select 'images' to see a taster of what might actually be in store for any community where drilling might take place.
We're likely to see the industrialisation of tracts of the British countryside, gas flaring in the home counties and a steady stream of trucks carrying contaminated water down rural lanes.
Production rates for the UK are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards and the proximity of populated areas.
Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase (considered a critical danger threshold), then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground.
The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new ‘dash for gas’ should be Plan Z, not Plan A.
All this makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country, which the Government seems determined to ignore in its public pronouncements and new round of licensing.
The industry will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced.
And no one really knows how much of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost both financially and to the environment at large.
Add to that the expectation that it will not in reality reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks a lot more risky than proponents and the Government is suggesting.
The shale gas narrative and tax breaks presented by George Osborne a year ago are also, in part, based on the fear of being 'left behind'.
At the time Osborne said that a technological revolution based on government "getting out of the way of progress" is what we need. He couldn't be more wrong.
Where the country is being left behind, however, is in the development of new environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas in the mix, it requires clear policy and leadership.
You can get away with small government on some issues - but not when it comes to energy. The UK needs a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don't have that.
The current UK government - initially hailed by Cameron as ‘the greenest ever’ - is a liturgy of broken promises and short-term opportunism.
When it comes to energy policy and our long-term future it seems that little George has no idea. And neither has little Britain.
See also - Cameron talks up fracking and Fracking hell! from 2013.
The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact information.