(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are
By John Kemp
LONDON, March 13 "We believe commercial shale
gas extraction should only go ahead in the United Kingdom if it
can be objectively demonstrated that the regulatory framework is
fit for purpose," six leading conservation organisations wrote
in a report on Thursday.
"Our analysis suggests that the current regulatory regime is
not fit for purpose and therefore unable to adequately manage
serious environmental risks," according to the study's principal
authors from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the
country's largest conservation charity with more than 1 million
members ("Hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the UK", March
In a summary, the authors highlight risks to groundwater,
wildlife habitats and climate change. To mitigate them, the
charities make ten recommendations, including the establishment
of shale gas exclusion zones in sensitive areas, mandatory
environmental impact assessments and "requiring shale gas
operators to pay for a world-class regulatory regime" ("Are we
fit to frack?" March 13).
Effective regulation is vital to ensure energy resources are
developed in a socially acceptable way that respects local
communities, landscape, wildlife and the country's historic
But the report fails to make a convincing case the current
system is inadequate or that additional requirements would
balance conservation with the need for more domestic energy
The report's authors note that there is no shale-specific
legislation in Britain, but all oil and gas operations are
already subject to a long list of regulations.
These include the Wells (Design and Construction)
Regulations 1996, the Boreholes Sites and Operations Regulations
1995, the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, the Environmental
Protection Act 1990 and the Environmental Permitting Regulations
Before drilling and fracturing a well, a company must obtain
more than 10 separate permits from the Department of Energy and
Climate Change (covering exploration and production issues), the
local authority (covering planning consents and infrastructure),
and the Environment Agency (water-related issues).
With so many rules already, there is no need for additional
shale-specific requirements. Existing legislation and
regulations should be properly enforced.
If all these existing laws, regulations and permits are not
enough, something is seriously wrong. If there is a problem,
which is questionable, the solution is to update the law for all
users, not just the shale industry.
CONCERNS OVER CLIMATE CHANGE
The report cites specific risks to wildlife and the
environment from fracking, some of them demonstrated, others
more speculative. These range from well blow-outs, earthquakes,
water contamination and water shortages to noise, light
pollution and loss of important habitats.
Fracking exclusion zones, environmental impact assessments
and requirements to use best available techniques for waste
management could allay some of those concerns.
But underlying these specific risks is a broader concern
about the impact of fracking for shale gas on climate change.
Britain has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to
help keep the rise in global average temperatures below 2
degrees Celsius by 2050. Specifically, the country has made a
legally binding pledge in the Climate Change Act to cut
greenhouse emissions 80 percent below the 1990 baseline by 2050.
"Shale gas exploitation is not compatible with (climate
change) goals," the authors conclude. Natural gas produces half
the emissions of coal when burned for power generation, but its
carbon footprint is nonetheless 16 times higher than wind farms,
according to the researchers.
Given its continued emissions, which may be understated
owing to fugitive methane emissions from fracked wells, natural
gas cannot reliably be considered a transition or bridge fuel on
the road to carbon-free power generation (see main report pages
The report leaves the reader with the impression no amount
of tinkering with permits could make large-scale fracturing
acceptable. If fracking for gas is ruled out on big-picture
climate-change grounds, no amount of changes to the permitting
system to mitigate impacts at local level could make campaigners
comfortable with it.
A sceptical reader might wonder whether all the specific
objections related to wildlife and habitats conceal a more
far-reaching policy of trying to keep gas locked in the ground
by making regulations so onerous that exploration and production
companies give up because they cannot comply.
Indeed, the authors cite estimates that two-thirds of global
fossil fuel resources must stay locked in the ground to meet the
2 degrees target and favourably cite other research that
"large-scale extraction of shale gas cannot be reconciled with
the climate change commitments enshrined in the Copenhagen
STRANGULATION BY REGULATION
The strategy might be called strangulation by regulation. It
has proved remarkably effective in the United States. By making
regulatory barriers and the permitting process insurmountable,
environmental organisations have been able to stop most fracking
on lands controlled by the U.S. government.
"America's total energy production has increased
dramatically in recent years. But within those numbers is a
serious dichotomy," Senator Lisa Murkowski said on Tuesday
("Global Energy Security and the Benefits of the American Energy
Revolution", March 11).
"Nearly the entire oil and gas production resurgence in the
United States has occurred on state and private lands, not the
millions of acres managed by the federal government," according
to Murkowski, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and
Natural Resources Committee.
"Combined hydrocarbon fuel production on federal lands
actually fell from 2008 to 2012," she complained.
It has proved nearly impossible for would-be drillers on
federal lands to comply with all the requirements imposed by the
Department of Interior and a host of environmental regulatory
Reading the UK fracking report, the sceptical reader might
wonder whether the sponsoring organisations want to ensure
something similar occurs in Britain. Fracking would be allowed
in theory, but not in practice.
That view is short-sighted. The alternative to developing
more domestic gas and oil supplies is not increased reliance on
wind power but higher imports from volatile regions such as the
Middle East, North Africa and Central and Eastern Europe, many
of which have weaker standards of environmental protection.
Stopping fracking in the United Kingdom will not reduce
fossil fuel production and climate change - it will simply shift
the impact to parts of the world where regulations are weaker.
Britain will probably never develop enough onshore oil and
gas to eliminate its need to import fossil fuels. But the more
petroleum that is produced in politically stable areas such as
the UK, the rest of Western Europe and the United States, which
have high environmental standards, the more secure our energy
supplies will be and the lower the environmental impact.
(Editing by Dale Hudson)