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UK government launches scientific review of shale gas


Cuadrilla's shale gas well, UK Photo: Cuadrilla Resources
Any exploration or development of shale gas in the UK will need to meet rigorous safety and environmental protections both above ground and sub-surface

Photo: Cuadrilla Resources

The UK government has commissioned the British Geological Survey (BGS) to advise on the latest scientific evidence around shale gas extraction.

UK ministers have always stated that the exploration of shale gas reserves in England could only proceed if the science shows that it is ‘safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby’. As a result, in November 2019 the government announced a pause on such activity after a report by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA – then known as the Oil and Gas Authority, OGA) found it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to hydraulic fracturing operations.


At the time, ministers confirmed the pause would remain in place unless further evidence was provided that shale gas extraction could be carried out safely. Any exploration or development of shale gas would need to meet rigorous safety and environmental protections both above ground and sub-surface.


The announced review will assess if any progress has been made in the scientific understanding which underpins government policy. The findings are expected before the end of June 2022.


Commenting on the shale gas review, Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: ‘It remains the case that fracking in England would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of gas could be produced for the market, and would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term. However, there will continue to be an ongoing demand for oil and gas over the coming decades as we transition to cheap renewable energy and new nuclear power. In light of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources.’


He confirmed, however: ‘Unless the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that shale gas extraction is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby, the pause in England will remain in place.’


The BGS has been asked to investigate:

  • Whether there have been new developments in the science of hydraulic fracturing – in particular, whether there are new techniques in use which could reduce the risk and magnitude of seismic events.
  • If there are new techniques, whether scientists are confident that they would be suitable for use in fracturing in the UK, with its specific geology and high population density.
  • Given any new developments in these technologies, how the seismicity caused by fracturing compares to other forms of underground energy production, such as geothermal and coal mining, or surface activities such as construction, and the evidence on the different ‘safe’ thresholds for activity, whether they remain the correct ones, and whether differences between them remain justified.
  • How the modelling of geologies such as shale has improved in the period since the pause of fracturing was implemented in 2019 and whether that means ministers could be completely confident about the modelling of seismic events and their predictability.
  • Whether there are other sites, outside of Lancashire (the location of the UK’s only horizontal wells to have been drilled and hydraulically fractured into shale rock to date), which might be at a lower risk of seismic activity and what level of confidence government would have in the assessment of seismic activity in these areas.


The work will be a desk-based exercise by the BGS, and no drilling of any further test wells or seismic monitoring will take place.


The review comes shortly after NSTA withdrew its requirement for Cuadrilla Resources to decommission its two UK shale gas exploration wells by the end of June 2022.


Commenting on the launch of the BGS review, Stephen Bowler, CEO of UK independent oil and gas E&P company IGas, said: ‘Gas has a key role to play to ensure our future energy supply is secure, affordable and as low carbon as is economically possible. It is used to heat over 80% of homes and by over 60% of the UK’s population for cooking. Whilst renewable sources of energy are increasingly producing a greater share of our electricity, gas still provides ~40%. UK shale gas resources can replace imports, reduce prices, boost the country’s tax revenues, and lead to job creation in areas where they are most needed to support the government’s levelling up agenda.’


Environmental bodies slated the call for a review on shale gas. Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Danny Gross said: ‘We don’t need a review to know that fracking is not the answer to our energy needs… Energy efficiency and developing the UK’s vast renewable power potential are the best ways to deal with the energy crisis and bring down soaring fuel bills – and this must be the focus of the government’s upcoming energy review.’


Meanwhile, Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School and co-director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC), noted that: ‘Even if the moratorium on fracking were to be lifted, it would take years of drilling before production could begin – far from the quick fix that some are calling for. By that time, the UK may not even need the gas – to meet the targets of a totally green power system by 2035 and a net zero economy by 2050, the nation’s gas consumption will have to fall dramatically.’


‘The public has largely either been uninterested or against shale gas all along. Given the 2050 net zero target, it is even less likely to support developing a new fossil fuel resource onshore now. In the UK government’s latest public attitudes tracker, 45% opposed shale gas development and only 17% supported it. The inconvenient truth is that there are no easy ways to increase domestic gas supply in the UK. The North Sea is mature and the emphasis is on maximising recovery of remaining reserves as production continues to decline. The UK’s dependence on gas imports is set to keep increasing, reaching 70% by the end of this decade.’


‘The answer is not more gas supply, it’s less gas demand. While taking the UK’s foot off the gas will take time and cost money, in the long term it will free the country from fossil fuel price volatility and reliance on importing a large share of its energy’.