It has split public opinion and tempers are still rising. Fracking for shale gas is a contentious issue, but supporters claim it holds huge potential benefits for the UK economy, as Jim McClelland reports
Perfect for puns on placards and front pages, fracking is the media-friendly short-form name for hydraulic fracturing, the process of extracting shale gas from layers of rock by drilling down and injecting fluid at high pressure.
The technology has faced vocal and widespread opposition from “fractivists”, including public figures and celebrities, from Green MP Caroline Lucas to Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, star of the Incredible Hulk.
The campaign against fracking is focused primarily on environmental issues: big-picture concerns about climate-change impacts of fossil-fuel consumption; plus local-community fears for potential groundwater contamination and air pollution.
The two most high-profile UK test-drilling locations have seen protesters marching in their thousands and camped on site. In North-West England, at Barton Moss, campaigners won a stay of eviction in March. Two month earlier, in the Sussex village of Balcombe, energy firm Cuadrilla announced it will not now frack the besieged site, due to unfavourable geology.
Data for the Bowland Basin now make it perhaps the largest such shale gas reserve in the world
These flashpoints have kept the bad-press bandwagon rolling since fracking-related earth tremors shook Blackpool in 2011.
Given such a controversial track record, has the global oil and gas industry been deterred from entry into the UK market? It most definitely has not, says founder, president and chief executive of Texas-based Breitling Energy Corporation, Chris Faulkner – the self-styled “Frack Master” – who describes commercial attitudes and investor confidence as robust.
“The UK is likely to become the next shale revolution, and many companies are looking closely at the country as the government makes steps towards encouraging the industry through new trespass laws and tax incentives,” he says.
With strong positive signals from key political quarters, the business case is being built on emerging data. The numbers are big and getting bigger.
Recent reports from the British Geological Survey have seen original estimates for total UK reserves revised upwards substantially to 1,300 trillion cubic feet (tcf), lifting expectations for amounts which are economically recoverable. Additional data for the Bowland Basin region, which stretches from Cheshire to Yorkshire, now make it perhaps the largest such reserve in the world.
“It is early days, but the UK shows every sign of following the example of the United States,” says Mr Faulkner. “Estimates of recoverable oil and gas are being upgraded as more detailed surveys are conducted and test drilling completed.”
Taking a conservative recovery ratio of 10 per cent, fracking advocates calculate 130tcf of gas extracted could provide anything up to 52 years’ UK supply.
If figures for reserves and recoverability remain works in progress, those quoted for potential employment are open to even more debate. Estimates for jobs to be created have ranged from 74,000 (Cuadrilla), down to 24,000 (AMEC) and back up to 64,000 (EY).
A fracking boom had at one point also been touted by Prime Minister David Cameron as having “real potential” to drive UK energy bills down, only for the suggestion to be dismissed by economist Professor Lord Nicholas Stern as “baseless economics”.
On the matter of price, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK Doug Parr argues it is vital to understand market differences either side of the Atlantic. “The situation in the US is radically different from the UK. We have much smaller land area to supply a denser population, stronger public environmental concerns and an open gas market. Conditions are the opposite of those in the US, where a fracking boom in a closed market led to a gas glut and collapse in prices,” he says.
“No energy expert sees the same price falls happening in Europe. The impact on gas costs is actually likely to be marginal or non-existent.”
Fundamental differences between US and UK regulatory frameworks are also highlighted by Mike Pocock, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. “In the US there is no national statutory framework for land-use planning, except for certain environmental laws and some enabling legislation. By contrast, the UK has a statutory plan-led system subject to both local consultation and independent examination. Nine separate applications make fracking one of the most regulated activities in the energy sector,” he says.
Blamed for exacerbating drought conditions in the US, water abstraction demands for fracking represent one issue where UK understanding has changed, as head of corporate affairs at Water UK Neil Dhot explains. “Overall, the potential amount of water needed in the fracking process was a big question raised very early on. However, all the studies and work we have seen in the last few months point to the amount of water needed being manageable,” he says.
So, looking at the strategic viability of fracking in the energy mix, might shale gas offer an interim means to wean the UK off coal addiction and reduce emissions in the medium term, while other, cleaner forms of generation, including renewables and nuclear, achieve critical mass?
According to Dr Parr at Greenpeace, such pragmatism is not credible in terms of timeframes for delivery, even putting aside environmental concerns and social resistance. “Given that shale gas production will not become significant for well over a decade, it is no quick fix for anything. It will play little or no role in displacing coal out of the UK power system. Coal should be mostly gone by the time shale ever becomes substantial,” he says.
There is neither consensus nor compromise on how fracking will play out in the UK. Depending which side of the police cordon you stand, the potential is as strong as the protest. The only aspect on which both sides might agree is that the pitch, marketing fracking to communities, has been found wanting so far.
As Mr Faulkner concludes: “Generally in Europe, the industry has handled the public relations very badly. The ‘bunker mentality’ of putting up barricades and getting on with it was not right. Engaging with communities, helping them understand shale exploration, fracking and the actual risks involved, hearing their views, is an approach used in the US, and it has worked.”
If little else about the future of fracking in the UK can be forecast with certainty, the local “sell” can be predicted to change. Expect a charm offensive.