A UK government committee has today said that fracking for shale gas in Britain should be put on hold because “it is incompatible with our climate change targets and could pose significant localised environmental risks to public health”.

In a report published today, the Environmental Audit Committee warns that only a small fraction of the UK’s shale reserves “can be safely burned if we are to keep global temperatures below 2 degrees” and calls for a moratorium on fracking.shale gas fracking

And it adds that “considerable uncertainties remain about the hazards fracking poses to groundwater quality, air quality, health and biodiversity”.

It also claims that even if exploratory fracking is allowed to continue, by the time shale gas is commercially viable, tightening carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act will have “significantly curtailed the scope for fossil fuel energy”.

Committee chairwoman Joan Walley said: “Ultimately fracking cannot be compatible with our long-term commitments to cut climate changing emissions unless full-scale carbon capture and storage technology is rolled out rapidly, which currently looks unlikely. There are also huge uncertainties around the impact that fracking could have on water supplies, air quality and public health.” 

The committee is concerned that current proposed legislation will open the door for fracking to go ahead within national parks and Walley added: “We cannot allow Britain’s national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty to be developed into oil and gas fields. Even if a national moratorium on shale drilling in the UK is not accepted there should be an outright ban on fracking in such special sites.”

She said the government ”is trying to rush through changes to the trespass laws that would allow companies to frack under people’s homes without permission. This is profoundly undemocratic and Parliament should protect the rights of citizens by throwing these changes out when they are debated later today.”

The committee is insisting that:

  • Licences and permits must not be issued if commercial operators cannot demonstrate sufficient resources and insurances to cover full liability in event of pollution incidents.  
  • Venting of methane emissions is unacceptable. Full containment of methane must be mandated in all fracking permits and permissions.
  • To protect groundwater a minimum separation distance — between the shales being fracked and underground aquifers — should be defined and mandated.  

UKOOG, the trade body for the onshore oil and gas sector, fundamentally disagrees with the committee’s call for a moratorium on fracking.

Its chief executive Ken Cronin said: “This rushed report ignores the fact that gas is not just a source of electricity but has a major impact on everyday life with respect to products we use, to heat our homes, the cooking we do and the jobs it sustains in industry. The report also ignores most of the evidence of a properly regulated and safe industry in the UK and that gas and renewables work together.

“Calling for a moratorium achieves only one thing – increasing the levels of gas coming from outside the UK at a substantially higher environmental cost and with significant economic consequences. The government has already announced that the next shale gas sites will not only be regulated by the four different regulators in line with 17 EU directives, requiring up to eight environmental permits per site, but also will be overseen by independent academics. No evidence exists of a failure in the current multi-regulated arrangements.”

Michael Bradshaw, Professor of Global Energy at Warwick Business School and co-author of a recent report on the future of shale gas, said that a moratorium on fracking “will do nothing to resolve the current stalemate over the question of developing the UK’s shale gas potential”.

“Instead it will create a Catch-22 whereby there is no drilling because of environmental concerns, but because there is no drilling we don’t know what the environmental impacts are under UK conditions and whether the risks can be managed satisfactory within existing regulations.”

Prof Bradshaw said that rather than a moratorium, “what is required is a precautionary approach that judges each drilling application on its merits and monitors its impact, which, in time, will result in a much more informed debate than we currently have”.

“One of the problems is that because of the limited amount of activity in the UK these enquires are drawing on a narrow evidence base.

“To be commercially viable and make a material difference to the UK’s gas security there would need to be a significant drilling campaign with hundreds of wells being drilled every year. That prospect might simply be unacceptable to society, but the key point is that we are a long way away from that possibility at present.”