23.09.2014 • Energy policy

The UK: latest front line in the European shale gas battles

The United Kingdom is full of strong opinions when it comes to shale gas, which requires hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) – the controversial technique where a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure into rock followed by depressurisation – to extract it. David Cameron’s conservative coalition government is pushing harder than ever on both a domestic and European level to promote the practice (and the lucrative rewards assumed to go with it). Meanwhile, thousands of Brits campaign on both a local and national scale to keep what they see as an unsafe and disruptive technique out of Britain for good.

Published on 23 September 2014 , by Jocelyn Timperley

Many of these tensions came to a head during August. The July launch of a new round of applications for onshore extraction licences – the first such round in six years – meant companies could finally apply again to perform hydraulic fracturing. This application round has been delayed by several years after two small earthquakes were triggered by fracking in 2011 in Northern England by shale gas exploration company Cuadrilla. This failure of the UK’s first attempt to hydraulically fracture shale caused widespread concern, forcing the government to join the host of other countries (such as France and Bulgaria) who have imposed moratorium on fracking. The ban, however, was lifted 18 months later.

In contrast to much of Europe, where development of any shale gas industry is often treated with extreme caution, the British government continues to be extremely supportive of shale having even recently invested £2.5 million to form an Office of Unconventional Oil and Gas (OUGO) to encourage the industry despite it still being in the first stages of infancy. With geological surveys estimating that at least two regions of the UK have reasonable amounts of shale gas, this month finally looked like the long awaited opportunity for the industry to put its skates on and power off into the sunset.

Shale dealings

Then several things happened. Firstly, following a freedom of information request by Greenpeace, a report by DEFRA (the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) on the impacts of shale gas in rural Britain was released [1]. Well, partly released that is. The report was so littered with the word ‘REDACTED,’ that, as one commentator put it, ‘it might instead be devoted to a military assessment of options for intervention in Iraq.’ This refusal to release the full report, including sections about impacts on local communities and house prices, raised several eyebrows and tempers. Especially when the only justification provided by DEFRA was that withholding the passages was in the ‘public interest.’

Next, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), the lobby representing the onshore oil and gas industry in the UK, published its most recent opinion poll on shale gas. ‘New survey shows 57% of Britons support natural gas from shale,’ a press release claimed emphatically. And only 16% opposed! Imagine that, and this apparent surge in public affection for shale gas was even more surprising considering the results of a government opinion poll on shale gas released the next day which showed a rather more modest 24% supporting shale gas, with 24% against. Although there clearly is some public support for extracting British shale gas, in contrast to countries with strong public opposition to shale like France and Germany, UKOOG’s results were still rather surprising. More raised eyebrows ensued

Frack free (everywhere)!

A few days later, British fracking protestors settled in for the ‘Reclaim the Power’ anti-fracking camp in the adorably named Little Plumpton, near Blackpool, joining the local group ‘Operation Mums and Grandmas,’ who had occupied a potential hydraulic fracturing site a week earlier. ‘We don’t do this lightly, it is an awful thing to have to do but it is now a matter of self-defence,said a spokesperson for the group. As well as providing a place to protest against fracking, the camp also gave workshops on alternatives to it, including community energy projects, bicycle powered generators and solar panel installation. An estimated 500 people attended the week-long camp, and a nationwide day of action against fracking saw protestors gluing themselves to the entrance doors of DEFRA and blockading the London headquarters of iGas Energy, operator of the largest number of onshore oil and gas wells in Britain.

The protest site was a stone’s throw away from the (now abandoned) site where the 2011 earthquakes occurred. In fact, it was Cuadrilla – the very same company who caused these earthquakes – who applied for an exploratory drilling licence at the Little Plumpton site this year. ‘At least 14,000 locals have written letters asking the council not to grant Cuadrilla permission to drill on the camp site,’ according to a Guardian article.

If exploratory drilling and potential fracking licences seem to be cropping up all over the UK, anti-fracking movements are seldom far behind. Frack-Free Balcombe! Frack-Free Manchester! Frack-Free Bolton! Frack-Free Lancashire! These local groups are supported by the nationwide campaigns of NGOs such as Greenpeace. ‘You’ve got the big green NGOs, and they can help local communities to resist, said Geert De Cock from Food and Water Europe. ‘That’s a powerful combination compared to other places like Poland or Romania, where the protests are so grassroots.

UK push for shale

In contrast, David Cameron – British prime minister since 2010 – is well known for his enthusiasm for shale gas. ‘Shale is important for our country: it could bring 74,000 jobs, over three billion pounds of investment, give us cheaper energy for the future and increase our energy security,’ he gushed in January, after announcing an extremely generous tax break for local councils who approved fracking in their area – one of several hard cash responses to local resistance which have been likened by some to outright bribery. [2]

The Tory party argue that shale is a necessary energy option, other sources of energy simply not adding up to what is needed. British coal production is decreasing (compensated for largely by Russian coal), few new nuclear plants being built (opposition to nuclear is strong in the UK) and reserves of North Sea gas – depended on for so long as a source of home grown energy – dwindling. Furthermore, with competition from the right-wing, climate-sceptic UKIP party and disruption from climate change deniers in their own back benches, prioritising renewables has taken a back seat with the current coalition government – despite election promises.

The opposition Labour party is attempting to strike a more cautious note, pushing for higher regulation and better monitoring of shale. Meanwhile, Caroline Lucas – Westminster’s sole Green Party MP – was arrested last year whilst taking part in an anti-fracking road blockade. ‘The only safe and responsible thing to do with shale gas,’ she said, ‘is to leave it in the ground.’

What’s so great about shale anyway?

Rising gas prices first triggered research into UK shale gas extraction in the mid-1980s, and recent studies have estimated that deposits could supply the country with gas for up to 40 years [3]. Until more exploratory drilling has taken place, however, it remains unclear whether extraction is economically viable.

Perhaps the most frequent argument for pushing ahead with British shale gas extraction is its lauded success in the US, where production has rapidly risen since 2000, halving gas prices and leading to projections of a 100 years supply of gas. But many are quick to point to several key differences between Britain and the US with regards to shale. The UK has a far denser population than the US, so higher disruptions to local people are likely, and the geology may also be less favourable – a factor which already contributed to the failure of Polish shale gas Mineral rights are also different: in the US these are held by individual land-owners, providing strong incentives for shale extraction, whilst in the UK they are held by the crown, making tax breaks and financial incentives for locals more necessary. Furthermore, the regulatory regime is significantly stricter – and will have to remain so if fracking has the remotest chance of being accepted in the UK. The already highly integrated European market also means British gas prices are also unlikely to go down as drastically as in the US. And in any case, the US shale may not be the golden-black beacon some thought it to be: recent less optimistic predictions of future US shale production have even sparked talk of a ‘shale bubble’.

Shale gas has also been lauded by some as a ‘bridging’ fuel on our way to the happier land of renewables, with claims it has lower greenhouse gas emissions than other fossil fuels like coal and imported gas. But concerns have been raised about the release of ‘fugitive’ methane – a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (the global warming potential over 100 years is 34 times more, in fact, according to the latest IPCC report). ‘That would call into question the viability of shale gas as a bridging fuel to get away from coal – even the dirtiest coal,’ says Jeremy Turk, researcher into fugitive methane emissions from shale gas at The University of Edinburgh. David Mackay, chief scientific adviser at the DECC, pointed out last year that in any case, global greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced only if the fossil fuels displaced by shale gas are not used elsewhere [4]. Fossil fuels found in the UK are, in fact, about the only ones the UK actually has the power to keep in the ground. In addition, significant extraction will likely take at least another decade – and even Cuadrilla admits that it will take another five years to see if an industry is viable in the UK.

A risky game?

Industry often claims that hydraulic fracturing has been used as a method to extract conventional oil and gas for some 30 years the UK – so there’s no need to worry about unforeseen dangers! But current concerns are actually over its recent combination with directional drilling, where a drill goes down a few thousand feet then moves horizontally into the shale gas layer.

There are serious risks to consider. Groundwater contamination due to subsurface methane, earthquakes due to the large volumes of high pressure water… A recent report by Friends of the Earth noted a multitude of risks and problems associated with fracking, such as the lack of clear water supply strategy – important for several water stressed area of England – and failure to address impacts on protected species. ‘Very little dedicated regulation has been introduced to cover unconventional gas and oil exploration and extraction to date, despite the process involved being largely untested in the UK, the impacts unassessed, and with techniques in some cases very different from conventional oil and gas production,’ said the report [5].

Concerns have also been raised about the competency and impartiality of the Environment Agency in its dealings with shale gas – and that’s before a single light-bulb has been lit by shale. Many were also shocked earlier this year at the government’s plan to change UK trespass laws to allow companies to perform hydraulic fracturing under peoples’ homes without their consent. And despite widespread opposition, companies can now apply to frack in national parks – albeit with ‘additional planning guidance.’

A European shale pioneer?

The British shale industry is dominated by small players like Cuadrilla and iGas, focussing principally on unconventional gas exploration. But bigger multinationals are dipping their toes in as well. Despite a fracking ban in their home country, it is French companies who are leading the way: Total became the first of the ‘Big Six’ to invest in UK shale after it announced in January a 40% stake in two shale gas exploration licences, whilst GDF Suez last year financially backed Dart Energy, another small unconventional gas exploration company. However these investments – Total’s was a maximum of $47 million – are minor for the time being. ‘I actually see this more as a vote of no confidence in UK shale,’ said Geert de Cock. ‘$50 million is equivalent to 3 wells or less: is that a vote of confidence?

Perhaps these token investments are instead a way to put pressure on the French government. Hydraulic fracturing may be banned in many European countries, but this hasn’t stopped a large amount of lobbying by oil companies in the European Union. ‘An underground offensive by the oil industry has managed to silence well-founded concerns about the dangers of fracking,’ said Antoine Simon, a shale gas campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe [6].

It is not just oil companies pushing for shale in the European Union however: Cameron himself actively lobbies for European shale. He even wrote a letter regarding shale gas to President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso last year, saying that ‘it is essential that the EU minimises regulatory burdens and costs on industry. [7] And, at least on this occasion, Cameron was successful: the directive in question did not include the environmental legislation for shale gas he lobbied against.

A dangerous distraction?

It is clear the Cameron government is dead set on extracting British shale, and without strong nationwide opposition they will likely continue to push for it for some time. However, it is also more and more apparent that local groups are ready and able to mobilise against feared local impacts at every turn – which is no surprise considering that acceptance of fracking depends on its distance from peoples own homes.

But for others, this isn’t even the main point. ‘In general, people are worried about earthquakes, they’re worried about falling house prices, about contaminated water. And they are all really big concerns […] but the biggest thing for me is that, with climate change, it just doesn’t make any sense,’ said Tara Wight, member of the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC) and anti-fracking protestor.

Geert De Cock thinks that once the public have seen the level of industrialisation required in rural areas for shale gas, they will ultimately reject it anyway. But he has a further concern. ‘My fear is not that we’re going to have shale gas in the EU and have lots of aquifers contaminated. My fear is that it distracts for five or ten years from the real issues.

Jocelyn Timperley

Photo source: Justin Woolford CC (une), Nazzy Amin.


[1See the heavily redacted ‘Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts’ DEFRA report here.

[2Local authorities in England would receive 100% of the business rates collected from shale gas schemes, rather than the usual 50%. Other benefits include a promised £100,000 in community benefits per well-site where fracking takes place in the exploratory stage, as well as 1% of shale revenues being given to communities.

[3See reports from the British Geological Survey – the body responsible for producing inventories of the UK’s mineral resources – detailing shale oil estimates for the three areas of the UK assessed so far.

[4Read the DECC report by David MacKay and Timothy Stone on potential emissions from shale gas here.

[5See the June 2014 Friends of the Earth report, ‘All that glitters: Is the regulation of unconventional gas and oil exploration in England really “gold standard”?’(available here).

[6See here the July 2014 Friends of the Earth Europe report, ‘Fracking Brussels: A who’s who of the EU shale gas lobby.’

[7The full letter can be found here.

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