It’s been a busy summer for shale in the UK. The British Geological Survey released a study doubling the estimates for the country’s technically recoverable shale gas reserves, and last month David Cameron’s government promised to put in place the world’s “most generous tax regime” for shale gas. These measures are aimed at helping the UK catch-up to the US, but they are running up against formidable public opposition from a small village (and a site of exploratory shale drilling) called Balcombe.Much of the backlash against fracking is divorced from fact and based on emotional responses to fossil fuel extraction that don’t account for shale’s proven green credentials. Cameron’s government is wary of being caught up in this backlash. While No. 10 released a statement yesterday praising the “exciting potential” of shale gas, it was careful to note that shale gas should only be extracted if there is “no risk” to the environment.If that’s the standard, Britain’s 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas will continue to stay locked in its rock coffin indefinitely. Any kind of drilling entails risks. For that matter, every energy source carries risks, including renewables. Just ask Germany, which is finding out the hard way how risky its bet on nascent green technologies was. The idea is to minimize risks, not eliminate them, and in that respect, the Financial Times offers up some sound advice:
Given the concerns that have surrounded shale from the start, it was clear the industry needed to win trust from the public. This is not simply because of environmental risks such as earthquakes and water-table pollution—risks which anyway have been overblown by critics. But Britain is not North Dakota. Extracting gas in a densely populated area was always going to be difficult without upsetting those who live close to drilling operations. […]Given the heat now surrounding Balcombe, the best thing might be to pause. The industry and the government could seek an alternative location where drilling would have less impact and enjoy more support. This would allow the industry to prove the initial fears were unfounded. While we favour development, there is no violent rush. The gas is not going away.
The stand-off in Balcombe could be a watershed moment for Britain’s shale gas industry. The British government shouldn’t ignore the wishes of the locals, who will have to live with the changes these wells will bring. But for the UK to sit on its hands, perhaps even indefinitely, as the FT seems to be calling for, might also be a mistake. There are strong incentives to get that gas out of the ground: cheaper energy for households and British industry, greater energy security, and half the carbon emissions that coal-burning produces. But it has to be done right. Find a more remote site, drill the wells properly, allow their cement casings to set, and find out how much gas really is down there.[Oil rig image courtesy of Shutterstock]