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Without Shale Gas, We're Fracked

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It's rather amusing to think how much we glorify our brew. The reaction to last Wednesday's Budget saw far more words spilled on a trivial reduction in beer prices than a policy that has thrown a considerable amount of wood onto the fire of a bitter environmental debate. "Shale gas is part of the future and we will make it happen", said George Osborne, as the Chancellor confirmed the UK government's long term commitment to the controversial method of fracking.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping large amounts of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock fissures which yield gas. Politicians and industry experts believe shale gas will not only guarantee UK energy security for decades to come, but will represent a critical "transition fuel" in moving towards a low-carbon economy and cutting emissions 80% by 2050. Basically, it's more important than beer.

Looking at the evidence, the proposition certainly seems attractive. Following a remarkable increase since 2000, the UK now imports 1.8 trillion cubic feet of gas per annum, which means around 40% of our total energy supply is sourced overseas. Indeed, this week has seen UK gas prices reach a record high after a Belgian pipeline shut down, while supply problems from Norway persist. Petroleum production has halved since 1996, nuclear has remained flat for two decades and 20% of our most polluting energy sources will shut by 2020.

So is a dash for gas the answer? Gas is the cleanest of the three fossil fuels and emits only half as much CO2 as coal. Estimates vary on the amount of shale gas available, but the consensus is that we have enough for over 100 years, supplying at least a quarter of our energy needs in that time. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) a colossal 37GW could be provided by shale gas powered stations as early as 2030.

And let's be honest, the current alternatives do not make for a healthy "energy mix". Despite the proposed development of Hinckley, the government's plans for 16GW of nuclear energy being produced by 2025 have been thrown in doubt by a European Commission row over subsidies, exacerbated by widespread uncertainty following the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Renewables don't hold much hope either, on their own at least. Projected renewable energy expansion will not help the UK meet its emission targets, since renewables still only provide 9% of our needs and are inherently expensive. The door is wide open for shale gas.

Fracking, however, does not have an especially good press over here. In an attempt to tap into some 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, UK fracking company Cuadrilla caused a series of small earthquakes in Lancashire two years ago. What's more, environmentalists warn that more methane will escape into underground aquifers and into the atmosphere compared to natural gas exploration. There is also concern that industrial chemicals could contaminate local water supplies and pose a threat to human health.

Back to the drawing board we go? Well, it's worth noting that some of these fears are misplaced. Seismic activity on the scale of what was experienced in Lancashire is smaller than many tremors resulting from mining and geothermal operations. True, some methane release into the atmosphere will almost inevitably occur, although an MIT study last November suggested fracking "has not materially altered the total GHG emissions from the natural gas sector". However, methane and chemical contamination of aquifers is a more serious issue, as demonstrated across the Atlantic.

The United States, despite profiting greatly from shale gas extraction which has helped gas prices tumble and emissions drop to their lowest level since 1992, is the blueprint for environmental catastrophes resulting from poor regulation. A report last year found that in the six most heavily fracked states, a majority of wells were not inspected due to a lack of government funding. There are only 17 inspectors employed to cover 60,000 wells in West Virginia, for instance. Regardless, inspectors cannot monitor the use of harmful chemicals in fracking fluids, because they are allowed to be kept a "trade secret" by the companies. And in some states, locals are given no choice over whether fracking takes place in their back yard or not. The result? A catalogue of so-called "fraccidents", most shockingly revealed in the 2010 film, Gasland, directed by James Fox. The whole situation is madness.

We can do better than this, despite the fact Cuadrilla has hardly covered itself in glory. It must be said the suspension of the company's fracking operations until 2014 has come at a useful juncture, as it coincides with the creation of the DECC's new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil, tasked with supervising fracking and onshore drilling. It is absolutely vital that this department applies a far more rigorous approach in scrutinising the conduct of Cuadrilla, otherwise corners will be cut at the expense of the public and environment, as seen in the US. The likes of the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive have been poor by themselves and require a coordinating force which understands the small print when it comes to onshore drilling.

There remain many 'ifs' and 'buts' when it comes to fracking shale gas, notably the impact of CCS technology by the 2020s - seen as the "do or die decade" in reducing carbon emissions. Crucially, there is a growing body of evidence which suggests fracking is not inherently dangerous. With greater transparency and tighter regulation, shale gas must be placed as part of an energy mix which lowers the risks associated with import dependency and which tackles the transition to a low-carbon economy. Otherwise, we really are fracked.

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