The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has announced new incentives to encourage further development in the shale gas industry. The plans, set out in this year’s Budget, include awarding tax breaks to fracking companies, as well as providing compensation to communities affected by the controversial technology. Mr Osborne said “I want Britain to tap into new sources of low-cost energy like shale gas,” and asserted that “Shale gas is part of the future.” However, despite the UK’s extensive shale reserves, it is by no means clear that shale gas will bring down energy prices. Moreover, the environmental concerns related to fracking, let alone of continuing to burn more fossil fuels, mean that the Government’s plans are likely to face considerable opposition from campaigners.
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, to give it its real name, is a process used to extract natural gas embedded within shale rock. The process involves drilling deep into the ground and blasting (fracturing) the rock using highly pressurised liquid. This releases the valuable gas which is subsequently captured and stored as fuel.
Why is there so much opposition to fracking?
The technology has been widely adopted in the USA since 2007, resulting in a significant drop in gas prices. However, the prohibition of fracking in countries like France and Bulgaria is indicative of a widespread scepticism regarding the technology’s safety. In fact, fracking was suspended in the UK until December 2012, following two mini-earthquakes near a drilling site in Lancashire in 2011. In addition, a recent report by the EU warned that the technology poses significant risks for air pollution and groundwater contamination.
Environmental campaigners also oppose the Government’s boost to fracking on the grounds that it detracts from the country’s growing green economy – making it even harder to meet our goals on climate change. Mirroring this sentiment, Lawrence Carter of Greenpeace said “Bungs to the gas industry make it harder for Britain to meet its climate targets and stifle the low-carbon sector, which provided one-third of all UK growth in 2011 – 12.” Local communities were also urged not to accept the government’s “bribes” in exchange for risks to their health and environment – with Friends of the Earth campaigner, Tony Bosworth, saying “Communities should resist attempts to buy off their well-founded opposition to fracking.”
Why do the Government support fracking?
One of the biggest arguments in support of extracting shale gas is that it will help keep energy bills down as the North Sea gas reserves run out and the low-carbon industry continues to develop. However, Energy Agency and Ofgem have predicted that there will be no decrease in energy bills as a result of fracking. In fact, as the Government’s own advisors made clear this week, an over-reliance on gas makes the economy more susceptible to price jumps in the energy market. Shale Gas will be expensive to exploit without a pre-existing drilling infrastructure, and may well prove costly in the long-run too if the focus is shifted away from renewable development.
One thing is clear; fracking is here to stay for now. The country faces a looming energy gap over the coming years, as old and dirty coal plants are shut down before the country’s low-carbon infrastructure is sufficiently developed. Shale gas may be the way we bridge that gap, but the greatest concern is that this short-term treatment is mistaken as a cure for the country’s ailing energy system. A sustainable and clean future can only be achieved through investment in renewables; the trick is not to let fracking delay that future.
The UK Government has shown its support for contraversial fracking activity. Is this the only way out for Britain’s energy crisis?