When preliminary tests for shale gas potential in the UK began in 2010, the results were fairly modest. Even so, anti-fracking groups took up the issue with guns blazing, publicly decrying the notion of exploiting these reserves with numerous rallies and demonstrations, some of which have ended in court cases. Public consensus has echoed this hostile stance for the most part, siding with the view that the risks associated with the implementation of drilling look to outweigh the benefits by a country mile.
In recent weeks, however, there have been rumblings of new information that might alter the landscape on this subject. A study by the British Geological Survey has pushed up its estimates for the amount of shale gas in the ground beneath eleven counties in the North of England to approximately 40 trillion cubic metres, towering above the previous figure of 5.3 trn m³. Of course, this doesn't detract from the potential problems caused by fracking, quite the opposite in fact. What may change is the degree to which Government is prepared to be led by the public on the subject of fracking, and widespread use of the method in the name of continued energy supply.
Chancellor George Osborne has never been shy about his intention to make the most of whatever indigenous supplies are discovered under our feet, and in his ambition to ensure that the UK is 'at the forefront of exploiting shale gas,' this revelation is surely music to his ears. Estimates of how long the newly-discovered supply of shale gas could meet our energy demands for now range from a decade to forty years, which comes at a convenient time for the Cabinet given Ofgem's recent announcement that spare capacity in the UK could drop to just 2% by 2015.
The problems linked to fracking are numerous and, in some cases, quite severe: from contamination of groundwater and the displacement of certain species to sizable tremors and kitchen taps that produce methane rather than water, it doesn't present a compelling case for communities in the same vicinity as proposed drilling sites. To combat this, sizable financial incentives are being offered by the Government to sweeten the deal, but many remain unconvinced.
The truth of the matter is that whether fracking is or isn't harmful, and whether it does or doesn't offer us a cheap and secure supply of energy, it can only ever be yet another temporary fix for the single most substantial issue faced by countries the world over. What's forty years in world terms? Not long at all. If the UK runs with shale drilling at the expense of getting its act together with an energy mix that works towards true sustainability, it only makes things more difficult further down the line. While the rest of the world tightens up their supply chains, advancing renewable technology to reach and even surpass parity with fossil fuels, we don't want to be straggling along, wishing only in years to come that we'd struck while the iron was hot.