Shale Gas: To Frack or Not To Frack?

According to the Chief Executive of Ofgem, Alistair Buchanan the UK is dangerously close to an energy crisis. So is shale gas the solution to this crisis? And can we ignore the concerns over the effect ‘Fracking’ could have on human health risks and the environment?

There is no denying that fracking for shale gas has enabled the US to become virtually self-sufficient in gas and shale gas production has also provided a much needed economic boost; creating jobs, reducing consumer costs on natural gas and electricity as well as stimulating growth and strengthening their federal, state and local tax revenues.[1. http://www.ihs.com/info/ecc/a/shale-gas-jobs-report.aspx]

The positive effects on the US economy has resulted in the UK government wanting to tap into this success. Prime Minister David Cameron has expressed that Britain must be at the heart of the Shale gas revolution; he stated that, for Britain to completely rule out shale gas would be a mistake as the shale gas revolution would be transformative and could result in a lot more gas with lower prices.[2. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/david-cameron-britain-must-be-at-the-heart-of-shale-gas-revolution-8406432.html]

The beneficial aspect of shale gas is clear to see, however what is not clear is the effect fracking will have on the environment and human health alike.

Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks to release the natural gas inside.

This controversial process has resulted in numerous of claims, with some environmentalist stating that the process could poison drinking water and cause major environmental damage, although energy companies have argued that the process is safe.

Moreover some stories have emerged from the US, including reports of tap water igniting and claims of contaminated water making people ill, studies showing that effects of the contaminated water includes eye irritation, headaches, sore throats and difficulty breathing. Not to mention the fears that fracking for shale gas may present a problem for global warming. However in a recent article in the Guardian this claim was, perhaps controversially, heavily downplayed.[3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/17/whats-the-truth-about-fracking]

Shale gas development in the UK is still very much in its infancy, therefore it is very early to determine the impact this will have on the UK economy, if any. The majority of the pro- shale gas arguments are based on the success of our US counterparts, but there’s no concrete evidence to suggest the UK will experience the same success. Conversely with the on-going debate over the health risks of ‘fracking’, is fracking for shale really worth the risk?

One possible benefit of UK Shale production or Shale imports, however, has been highlighted by the last two Winters. Prolonged cold spells through until late March and continuing intermittent supply disruptions from Norway, Russia and the Middle East has caused spikes in wholesale gas prices that have increased gas and electricity costs to UK consumers in both the commercial and domestic markets. This creates an overwhelming need for another supply source that is more constant and reliable during the Winter months, which reduces volatility and spikes in demand and price. Otherwise these spikes are causing a continued upward trend in gas and electricity prices. Potentially the UK should look into these intermittent supply disruptions and take a firm line with our global supply partners, but this is very unlikely and unprecedented. Instead the only foreseeable counter balance is the domestic production or import of competitively priced shale gas.

Whether the benefits of shale gas outweigh the negative effects of fracking, may depend on how you weigh up environmental concerns against the importance of lower energy prices for the UK’s economy.

However it is fair to say opinions remains “fractured.”