So just as they pack the last bottle of sunscreen into the suitcase, Ministers are suddenly brought up short by having to say, something, anything, as the fracking debate bursts into the public domain. I wonder whether they thought that it really would go away for the summer, and that Cuadrilla could quietly get on with drilling holes in the Sussex countryside, whilst their children dig holes in the sand of foreign beaches?
The main pitfall of suddenly having to say something when you’re the duty Minister and everyone else has jetted off is that, unless there is a strategy to fall back on, what you say will look pretty lame pretty quickly. Thus, on Thursday, Michael Fallon for DECC is telling us that it is all about “cheap energy prices” and that it is time to “get on” with fracking. On Friday, Ed Davey says that the Government won’t be pushed off course on renewables by fracking supporters (they’re behind you, Ed!), and on Sunday DCLG Minister Don Foster says that fracking is proceeding very carefully and only on an exploratory basis, but not in Bath, please. Which is kind of what Ed Davey said in his lengthy and rather rambling statement last December on the resumption of fracking after the “small earthquake” moratorium of the autumn (except he didn’t exclude Bath).
The problem from the strategy point of view is this: there isn’t one. There’s nothing of the sort in the National Energy Planning strategy documents which just seems to contain some barking up of the brilliance of shale in some parts of Government. Oh and the claim that, well, yes, something is happening but it’s not production, only to explore what’s there.
So what does the Government actually want to happen with fracking? It is true that there is quite a lot of shale gas around, and it is true that, probably, if you do it carefully enough, drilling, fracking and producing can be done reasonably safely (IF – I emphasise.) But is it honestly envisaged by the Government that we really are going to solve our energy security and long term gas supply problems through fracking? Because if that is what is being considered then we must urgently have the debate about what this means. Will there be 18,000 or even far more wells dotted around two areas of the country where the deposits seem to be? Six or seven thousand wells across Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex and perhaps twice that number across north England is rather more than a NIMBY issue, even if you express the size of fracking pads in terms of cricket pitches. And that is just to replace 10% of our current gas demand with fracked gas, which could certainly be approached by other means in terms of a long-term gas strategy. Significantly local councils will not be able to consider alternatives when looking at mineral based planning applications.
And if, as Ed Davey assured us in December “licences [for water extraction] will only be given where the agency is satisfied that a sustainable supply is obtainable” then how sustainable is that number of wells in areas where there is already considerable water supply stress? Each well takes approximately seven million gallons of water to frack and could have to be fracked again after a few years. Will the Environment Agency be required to ignore the cumulative impact of this number of wells on water supplies? We just don’t know.
All this has to be phrased as a series of questions because there are no answers at the moment – just some hit and hope rhetoric coupled with some “it’ll be all right on the night” soothing noises. It is interesting that the December 2012 Gas Strategy indicated that UK and European gas prices are likely to rise over the next period and will only be tempered a little by the prospect of unconventional gas (so no “cheap gas for the UK” from fracking as Michael Fallon seems to be suggesting). It also told us that Shale Gas exploitation could be good for the UK’s economy, and that there will be an ‘Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil’ set up to think about it all. But that’s about all it told us.
What the strategy does says, however, is this:
“experience shows that an estimate of recoverable gas can only be made once several wells have been drilled and their production characteristics tested over a significant period of time”.
Is this what is going on? Present moves hardly support such a view. Licences are being given out to shale gas producers and not just for making an “estimate of recoverable gas”, as more nervous Ministers seem to be suggesting. If the Government really wanted to do that, then they wouldn’t be licencing in the way they seem to be, which is akin to deciding to settle the Wild West by employing posses of Mexican bandits as sheriffs.
So here’s a brief proposal on how to bring some light into the shale gas debate.
Firstly producing a genuine “unconventional gas” strategy to set out what the possible ambition in the UK for unconventional gas is and what its consequences might be. Then commit to discuss the trade-off between the two in the strategy.
Secondly, undertake exploratory well drilling to estimate recoverable resources on the basis of a Government instigated and funded programme, on a declared timescale. This should take place prior to a period of public debate about the effect of any resource estimates on an overall strategy.
Oh, and thirdly it would be nice to include in any discussion whether, in the light of what we think will be the role of gas in the energy economy in the 2030s, and the maintenance of carbon emissions targets, it might be more prudent in the long run, to leave most of the tightly bound, inaccessible gas deposits that exist in the rocks underneath us exactly where they are.