Shale gas and fracking in the UK

  1. What are the potential reserves of shale gas in the UK?

Shale gas exploration is in the very early stages in the UK and therefore the amount that could be recovered remains uncertain. The majority of predictions are based on the UK’s three main shale gas formations: the Bowland Shale in Northern England and the Midland Valley of Scotland (both Carboniferous), and the Weald Basin in Southern England (Jurassic). Other areas of interest include County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, and the much older Lower Palaeozoic rocks in Wales and central England.

Estimates suggest that the amount of shale gas (regardless of the feasibility of extraction) lies between 2.8 and 39.9 trillion cubic metres (tcm). The lower figure is based on analogies drawn with similar formations in the United States, and envisages 2.7 tcm in the Bowland shale (the largest resource) and less than 1 tcm in the Weald basin. The higher figure is based on 3D geological modelling by the British Geological Survey (BGS), which estimates around 37.6 tcm in the Bowland Shale, 2.3 tcm in the Midland Valley, and no shale gas in the Weald Basin. Oil and gas company Cuadrilla currently has eight sites in the Lancashire Bowland area, one in operation, and believes that the area contains at least 5.6 tcm of gas.

So-called ‘proven reserves’ – the volume of gas that can be technically recovered and that is also economically and legally viable – have yet to be estimated for the UK. However, then Prime Minister David Cameron stated in 2013 that if just 10 per cent of known reserves could be extracted, it would provide the equivalent of the UK’s total gas needs for 51 years (based on the BGS’s survey of the Bowland Shale).

  1. What is the current status of fracking in the UK?

In December 2012, the Department for Energy and Climate Change announced that exploration could resume following a year-long moratorium imposed after two minor earthquakes that occurred at Cuadrilla’s Preese Hall site in Lancashire. In 2016 Theresa May’s election manifesto promised to ‘develop the shale industry in Britain’ and to set up a new Shale Environmental Regulator.

Exploration has taken place at a number of sites in England, with approval for further work at varying stages. Third Energy is awaiting final permission, from the Government, to start fracking at Kirby Misperton in North Yorkshire. This would be the first fracking to actually take place in the UK since 2011.

The SNP government in Scotland has banned fracking.

  1. What are the arguments for and against fracking in the UK?

Arguments in favour include improving energy security, reducing the cost of energy and providing jobs (e.g. a 2014 report commissioned by the Government claimed 64,500 jobs could be created ‘at peak’). But fracking is highly controversial in the UK, prompting significant protests at earmarked sites by local residents and anti-fracking groups.

The main concerns are about water, air, noise and traffic pollution, and harm to landscapes and the natural environment, particularly in parts of the countryside renowned for their natural beauty, including protected areas (the Government granted permission for fracking to occur 1,200m below national parks and other protected sites in December 2015). Others believe the case for fracking has been weakened given further oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and to the West of Shetland, and significant growth in renewables’ contribution to the UK’s energy mix.