Britain lifts ban on shale gas fracking


Britain this morning lifted its ban on shale gas exploration as it aims to become a European leader in a sector that has transformed the US energy market and counter a fall in the UK's natural gas production.

The method is seen as very controversial in Ireland. Resources firm Tamboran Resources is pursuing plans to drill for natural gas in Leitrim and Fermanagh.

The green light on shale gas fracking from Energy and Climate Change secretary Edward Davey comes about 18 months after UK authorities halted the unconventional exploration after the process set off earth tremors at one site.

"I am in principle prepared to consent to new fracking proposals for shale gas, where all other necessary permissions and consents are in place," Mr Davey said in a ministerial statement.

Europe's largest gas consumer, Britain had, in May 2011, put a temporary stop to hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" for shale gas, a process in which water and chemicals are injected at high pressure into rock formations to retrieve trapped gas, after earth tremors were measured near a fracking site close to Blackpool.

Fracking can resume immediately, but explorers need to operate under tighter rules including more thorough assessments for seismic risk and installing a so-called traffic light system where operations will be automatically stopped in certain conditions.

Currently, only shale gas firm Cuadrilla Resources has an exploration licence for shale gas in Britain. The company said its fracking work would not resume before March due to new permits now required.

"I think with this announcement that there are other companies who will apply for exploration licences," Simon Toole, the Department of Energy and Climate Change's head of licensing, exploration and development, said.

Approval to resume shale gas exploration had been widely expected before the end of the year as Mr Davey said in October that he hoped to lift the ban.

The British government announced this month that it would create a dedicated government office to simplify regulation and to offer tax breaks to the shale gas industry.

Britain's domestic natural gas reserves are dwindling, and national production has been dropping since 2004, turning the country from a net exporter into an importer of natural gas.

The British Geological Survey estimates Britain's onshore shale reserves at 5.3 trillion cubic feet (150 billion cubic metres), which would be enough to meet Britain's gas consumption for one and a half years, although UK shale gas exploration companies such as Cuadrilla Resources have put their figures as high as 200 trillion cubic feet.

The government has said gas will play an important role in Britain's future electricity mix, with gas-fired power plants expected to fill gaps left by volatile renewable production and the phasing out of ageing coal plants.

Around 21 gigawatts (GW) of current power plant capacity will be phased out by 2030 due to age and stricter pollution rules.

The government has said 26 gigawatts - equivalent to around 25 power stations - of new gas-fired power plant capacity is needed to fill the gap and meet future demand.

In the United States, an oversupply in natural gas following the start of shale gas fracking has brought a drop in domestic power and gas prices.

Partly due to shale reserves, the United States is expected to become almost self-sufficient in oil and gas by 2035 and will overtake Russia in gas production by 2015 and Saudi Arabia in oil production by 2017, the International Energy Agency said in November.

Europe has taken a far more cautious approach partly because of environmental risks and the fact the region is more densely populated than North America, with countries such as France and Bulgaria banning exploration.

The European Parliament rejected a ban on shale gas on November 21st and asked for a robust regulatory regime to address environmental concerns.

The European Commission, the EU executive, is expected to come up with a framework for managing risks next year.

Environmentalists warn that a continued reliance on gas would prevent the UK from meeting targets to cut emissions and tackle climate change, and that shale has no place in the move to a low-carbon economy.

Concerns have also been raised following widespread exploitation of shale resources in the US that it can cause local environmental problems including polluting water supplies and damaging development.

Before the UK decision was revealed, Friends of the Earth senior energy campaigner Tony Bosworth said: “A green light to fracking would spell bad news for local communities and their environment, jeopardise UK climate change targets and help keep the nation hooked on dirty gas for decades.

“Gambling on shale gas is a risk we don’t need to take - developing our huge clean power potential and cutting energy waste will create jobs, reduce our fossil fuel dependency and keep the lights on.”


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