Tag Archives: shale gas

You shouldn’t love or hate fracking unconditionally

I was at a workshop in which we compared hydraulic fracturing/ fracking policy in many countries: the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Sweden, and Switzerland. One crucial point that arose from the focus on Germany/ UK on the one hand, and France/ Sweden on the other is that the debate has become relatively specific in some countries. In France and Sweden, the debate is quite broad: Sweden focuses on a broad opposition to fossil fuels and relatively low reliance on gas; in France, 90% of electricity comes from nuclear, and the debate is wider, focusing on hydrocarbons. In the UK and Germany (at least in our impression) we talk specifically about fracking as a technology – the ‘unconventional drilling’ side and focus very much on the uncertainty about the seismic activity and pollution caused during the process. Maybe we occasionally talk about fossil fuels in general but, as far as I can tell, not very often and not very well. The focus on the technology side of shale gas has often pushed the fossil fuel and energy mix question off the agenda.

This country-specific outcome is contributing to a profound global problem. In particular, look at the unintended consequences:

  • The rush for shale gas/ oil in the US – they produced huge energy reserves and helped push the price down; the price of coal has become too high and the US now exports a huge amount to Europe.
  • The uncertainty about the energy mix in the UK in Germany. Germany is phasing out nuclear and, for the foreseeable future, will burn a huge amount of coal until its transition to greater renewable energy. The UK has not made an effectively strong commitment to nuclear and also relies a huge amount on coal.

Look at these two things in tandem: the US fracks, uses the oil and gas at home, then ships over coal to burn in Europe. I like to think that this is not a decision that would have been made ‘rationally’ if they cooperated or each individual country consider their own energy mixes in a more holistic way.

The problem is that, at least in the UK, this kind of discussion gets lost in the excitement of fracking (and, in many cases, the usual party politics nonsense). Many (if not all) of us don’t want fracking in our back yard, but we might be happy enough with fracking in someone else’s. Perhaps some of us have vague hopes that, if we ban fracking, we will suddenly get all of our electricity from renewable energy (and perhaps burn less gas for heat in our homes). Some of us don’t care. Some of us want to use far less energy. Some of us are frustrated that we are making hugely contradictory choices (at least in the short term) by banning fracking partly on the grounds that you should keep fossil fuels in the ground while accepting that we are burning other fossil fuels from under someone else’s ground.

In other words, we do the debate a disservice if we love or hate fracking unconditionally. We need to think about the assumptions we make when we reject some fuels, and consider in more depth what else we can do. If not shale gas or nuclear power, are we happy to keep burning coal and importing gas? This is not my argument for shale gas. It is an argument for a better, more coordinated, national discussion on the risks and rewards of all parts of the energy mix.

See also:

uk import dependency

This UK Government document give you a sense of the proportion of energy the UK imports. The UK is now a net importer of all fuels (see p3). This UK Government document suggests that we imported 49 million tonnes of coal in 2013, and that our natural gas consumption (850 TWh in 2013) – for homes, industry and electricity – comes as much from imports as domestic production.

gas imports

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Fracking policy in the UK: all out for shale?

This post is based on a paper that I co-authored with Manuel Fischer and Karin Ingold: Cairney Fischer Ingold fracking in the UK for Zurich workshop 23 Jan 2015 (updated version: Weible et al book UK Chapter Cairney et al (including tables and appendix) 2016). See also a draft Fracking UK timeline

The UK Government looks like it is as strongly pro-fracking as it can possibly be. Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared: ‘we’re going all out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people, and economic security for our country’. Chancellor George Osborne also wrote a detailed letter to ministers asking them to make policy implementation a ‘personal priority.’

For the UK Government, fracking has three main benefits: ‘energy security, decarbonisation and economic growth’. It has shown clear support for test drilling to assess the economic feasibility of fracking. It has reinforced this support with a range of policies:

Yet, in two crucial ways, it has not gone all out for shale. First, it is part of a loose coalition of organisations which, ‘on average’, is tentatively pro-fracking. The coalition includes UK government bodies; government agencies monitoring adherence to regulations; the three main UK political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat (at least while in coalition government); the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the House of Commons, currently with a government majority; private energy companies (Cuadrilla, IGas Energy, Centrica, Total, Shell, National Grid) and industry groups (United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group, Oil & Gas UK, Chemical Industries Association; the NGO, No Hot Air; and, groups generating and sharing research: Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Geological Survey, CNG Services, Geological Society, Policy Exchange. The common element to this coalition is a wish to approve test drills, to get a better sense of the economic potential of shale gas (which only depends partly on production potential – note the currently low oil and gas prices), and support extensive regulation. Only some members of this coalition favour the ‘all out’ strategy. This coalition competes with an anti-fracking coalition which, while much smaller number, has a less equivocal political position. It includes the Green Party, NGOs such as the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Frack off, Friends of the Earth, and WWF UK, and, a research group, Tyndall Centre Manchester.

Second, it has not taken a centralist approach to energy security. Instead, it shares power across several levels of government. It has overall responsibility for energy policy, and retains ownership of mineral and gas resources, but has not centralised many aspects of fracking policy which are made by: devolved governments, responsible for developing national planning guidelines (Scotland will also soon receive powers on licensing); local authorities charged with granting planning permission for individual drilling sites; and public bodies responsible for ensuring environmental protection and health and safety. It also shares responsibility for environmental policy with the European Union. The UK has taken responsibility for strategic issues, related to energy security, the generation of evidence to address the economic viability and environmental uncertainty regarding fracking, the tax and incentives regime, and the UK-wide system granting energy companies the right to operate to extract minerals, but not the decision to approve drill sites in local areas. This is reflected in its rather convoluted ‘roadmap’ for private companies, which involves at least 15 steps and interaction with government and a large number of public bodies, culminating in the need to satisfy local authorities that they should drill in their area (public bodies, such as environment agencies also implement a complex mix of EU, UK and devolved regulations).

Currently, the result is that we don’t quite know what will happen, particularly since devolved and local governments are much more hesitant to approve actual development in their areas. The UK government may be ostensibly ‘all out for shale’, but this is not reflected in key decisions on the ground.

On this basis, we could expect one of three things. First, as events proceed and local areas begin to make decisions on individual sites, the anti-fracking coalition may swell, to reflect a growth in opposition or the decision of local authorities to reject planning applications. This is particularly likely if incidents such as tremors/ earthquakes should happen again close to test drilling sites. Second, the majority coalition may swell, but change further, to reflect an important degree of hesitant and prudent pro-fracking attitudes that are not sufficient to produce commercial fracking. Or, third, the majority coalition becomes more in favor of fracking, perhaps following the development of test drills and the gathering of evidence that suggests that regulations are sufficient and the commercial potential of shale gas is more certain. The latter outcome is by no means certain.

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