Shale gas can expand Britain’s energy resource, reduce reliance on dirty coal and cut carbon emissions
The United Kingdom is braced for the worst winter in 60 years, with heavy snows and record cold forecast. For many, survival will take a huge toll on the handbag: last year, the average fuel bill soared to a record £1,353, and the Office for Budget Responsibility says it will increase by £100 on average this year.
If that does not make you shiver, consider this: at one point last winter, the UK’s gas supply was a mere six hours from empty.
It does not have to be that way. The future will be a lot warmer if the UK can muster the political will to look to a promising new alternative in energy production– hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, a drilling technique that releases natural gas stuck in shale formations, opening access to enormous underground reserves.
So far, the UK has refrained from taking advantage of this extraordinary ability to tap previously inaccessible reserves, citing environmental concerns. A close look at the fracking experience across the Atlantic, however, demonstrates how unfounded the concerns are and how beneficial fracking can be, both environmentally and economically.
As the United States has become more adept at tapping its existing energy resources, largely through fracking, the yields have been astronomical: this year, the US became the biggest natural gas producer in the world.
The UK could benefit from this technological innovation too; a British Geological Survey estimate suggests there are around 40tn cubic metres of shale gas in northern England alone. If only 10% of the UK’s shale reserves were tapped, the nation could be powered for the next half century.
The opposition to fracking is a product of scientific misunderstanding – or worse, an agenda put forward by supposed environmental advocates who stand to profit if natural gas never lives up to its full potential.
Contrary to what the fear-mongers suggest, natural gas from fracking actually benefits the environment. Natural gas emits a fraction of the carbon dioxide, nitrogen and sulphur oxides of coal – which accounts for 40% of the UK’s energy consumption. In the US, as energy consumption has come to rely more on natural gas and less on coal, carbon emissions have plummeted to their lowest point in nearly two decades.
Alarmists have also raised concerns about fracking’s effect on the environment, claiming it contaminates groundwater and releases dangerous amounts of methane. In August, more than 2,000 people protested against fracking in West Sussex. So rowdy were the protests that they cost millions to police.
Yet no scientific evidence supports the claim that fracking poses a meaningful environmental or health risk. Public Health England has concluded that the small emissions from fracking pose little risk of harm. And the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have likewise “concluded that the health, safety and environmental risks associated with the [fracking] technique can be effectively managed”.
Across the ocean, similar findings have been reported. Lisa Jackson, the former head of the US Environmental Protection Agency – no friend of fracking – conceded that there are “no proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water”. And a recent study by the University of Texas at Austin – the most comprehensive and authoritative yet – concludes that earlier estimates of the amount of methane emitted at fracking sites were vastly overblown. The installation of proper “completion” equipment “reduces methane emissions by 99%”.
And the economic benefits of fracking basically speak for themselves.
A new study found that in the US, fracking caused an energy boom that has created about 2.1m jobs. It also added $75bn (£46bn) to government coffers at both the state and federal levels. Moreover, cheaper fuel has spurred the domestic manufacturing sector, increasing industrial production. That, in turn, helps the overall economy: IHS, an American company, has estimated that cheaper oil and gas has already increased the income in the average American home by $1,200 a year.
Consumers benefit too; with more than 10,000 wells opening each year, natural gas costs Americans less than a third of what their British counterparts pay.
With fracking, the UK could expand its energy supply and strengthen its economy without jeopardising the health and safety of its citizens. As the winter cold sets in, that’s heartwarming news.
• Chris Faulkner is chief executive officer of Breitling Energy Corporation.