The Government yesterday paved the way for shale gas exploration in the UK by allowing controversial “fracking” to resume after a hiatus of more than a year.
Moves by gas company Cuadrilla to exploit the unconventional gas in Lancashire were put on hold after hydraulic fracturing or fracking, which uses high-pressure liquid to split rock and extract gas, caused two small earthquakes last year.
Energy Secretary Ed Davey said yesterday that fracking could resume in the UK, subject to new controls which aim to reduce the risk of seismic activity.
Mr Davey said shale gas represented a promising new potential energy resource for the UK, although it was not yet known what contribution it could make to the energy mix, jobs and the economy.
Cuadrilla hopes to secure the necessary planning permission and permits to resume fracking in the coming months and has initial data on the amount of gas it might be able to exploit from the shale near Blackpool by the middle of next year.
But the news that fracking could restart has been greeted with dismay by opponents, who fear shale gas operations could pollute water supplies, cause tremors and lead to damaging development of drilling well sites in the countryside.
Environmentalists also warn that a continued reliance on gas would prevent the UK meeting targets to cut emissions and tackle climate change, and that shale has no place in the move to a low-carbon economy.
Mr Davey insisted that exploiting shale gas in this country would not undermine efforts to cut emissions to tackle climate change.
And he said that, as gas would be needed for decades for heating, cooking and electricity, there were advantages for energy security, the economy and even the climate in developing domestic supplies instead of importing gas from Qatar or Russia.
The Treasury has already signalled its support for the budding industry, proposing tax relief for shale gas, and unveiling a gas generation strategy which potentially paves the way for a new “dash for gas”.
A spokeswoman for 10 Downing Street said yesterday: “There is great potential for prices to come down and that is something that is attractive about finding another source of energy.”
But questions have been raised about whether shale can bring down gas prices in the UK and Europe in the same way it has in the US, where the resource has been widely exploited – though not without controversy.
The go-ahead for fracking to resume came as the Government’s climate advisers warned that a continued reliance on gas would push up consumer bills by more than if there were a shift towards low-carbon power such as wind.
The Committee on Climate Change’s chief executive, David Kennedy, dismissed claims that exploiting shale gas in the UK and Europe could push down gas prices.
He said it was not a “game changer” on this side of the Atlantic as it could only meet a relatively small share of gas demand.
Greenpeace’s Leila Deen said energy analysts believed shale gas would not lower prices as it had in the US, and pinning the country’s energy hopes on the fossil fuel was a gamble which would leave consumers and the climate paying. “George Osborne’s dream of building Dallas in Lancashire is dangerous fantasy. He is not JR Ewing and this is not the US,” she said.
Yesterday’s decision paves the way for potential exploration of shale reserves elsewhere in the UK.
Other areas where fracking has been mooted include near Balcombe, West Sussex, where concerns have been voiced about pollution of water supplies, and in the Mendips, raising fears it could affect the hot springs at Bath.
Comment: Page 14.