Shale gas: Not an easy win

This week is the deadline for the latest round of applications for onshore oil and gas licences. What are likely to be the key issues in the months ahead? Environmental Industries Commission executive director Matthew Farrow suggests a top three.

The last few weeks has seen a lot of activity on shale gas issues here at the Environmental Industries Commission.  We were a sponsor of the European Shale Gas and Oil Summit (ESGOS), where I chaired a session on the environmental management of shale sites. And we held a workshop for EIC members with the Environment Agency shale gas team and with UKOOG, the trade association for the UK shale gas industry. 

DON'T MISS THIS KEY EVENT: Find out about the political parties views on fracking at the EIC conference “Establishing a Green Agenda” on  2 December. For details click here or go to

About 30 EIC member companies attended, and we were able to get into real detail in small group discussion about how the environmental impacts of shale sites can best be managed.

From the debates and discussions at these events, three things have struck me.

First, it’s worth remembering that there is still no guarantee that the UK shale gas exploitation will be economically feasible.  

A number of geologists spoke at the ESGOS sessions, and one made the point strongly that the US shales were extremely ‘user-friendly’ and UK (and most non-US shales) will not yield their treasures as easily. 

The consensus seems to be that dozens of exploratory wells will be needed before we can really assess the economic viability of large scale UK shale gas extraction.  So while perhaps unlikely, it is still possible that a decade from now we will look back and wonder about those strange few years in the 2010s when a shale gas revolution seemed imminent but then came to nothing.

Second, the impact of shale gas exploitation on climate change mitigation is complex.  

Gas is lower carbon than coal and virtually all UK energy scenarios indicate significant amounts of gas will be used well into the 2030s.  The ‘carbon footprint’ of shale gas is likely to be comparable to or better than that of imported LNG so shale gas could help us increase our energy security with no medium term carbon penalty. 

The green NGOs however will point out that existing identified fossil fuel reserves if combusted without any carbon capture technology would send atmospheric carbon concentrations well beyond levels most scientists believe would cause dangerous climate change. 

The question there is could UK shale gas lead to a switch from coal to gas (perhaps in part by depressing gas prices compared to coal, though there is no guarantee of this) over the next 20 years without prejudicing the long term phasing out of unabated fossil fuels?  If it does, then shale gas could be valuable ‘bridge’ to a low carbon energy system. 

The problem is if the ‘bridge’ becomes more comfortable than the destination, for example if large supplies of shale gas helps depresses the price of all fossil fuels compared to renewables.   Personally, I would like to see exploitation of UK shale gas combined with a statutory target for sufficient decarbonisation of our energy system by 2030 to ensure we remain on track for our climate change commitments 2030.

Third, EIC members have much of the expertise that will be needed by the shale industry

Their expertise covers fields such as environmental monitoring, wastewater treatment, solid waste management, air quality and man others.  While shale sites will need to be carefully monitored and managed, it does seem that the level of concerns raised are disproportionate to the expected risks. 

Groundwater contamination from existing septic tanks or landfill sites is a bigger concern than from fracking, for example. And some practices in the US, such as storing wastewater from fracking in open lagoons at the well pad, would quite rightly not be allowed in the UK.

It does seem certain that both the macro and micro aspects of UK shale gas will continue to excite huge interest and debate for next few years, and EIC intends to be an objective, thoughtful contributor to that debate.

The Environmental Industries Commission is the leading trade body for environmental firms.

Find out about the political parties views on fracking at the EIC conference “Establishing a Green Agenda” on  2 December. For details click here or  go to