Lord Smith ignites fracking debate

Anti-fracking campaigners have reacted angrily after Environment Agency (EA) chairman Lord Smith gave his qualified support for the controversial method of shale gas extraction, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the UK.

In a keynote speech, Lord Smith said that he believed that if drilling can be carried out at a “reasonable cost” that the development of shale gas would be “highly attractive for our energy needs”, but would require a major programme of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) for gas-fired power generation.

Speaking to edie, Renewable Energy Association (REA) chief executive Gaynor Hartnell agreed that CCS would be needed if gas-fired plants are to play a role in meeting the UK’s carbon targets – but argued that renewables should be the “first choice for Government as no other energy solutions tick as many boxes and that other solutions should only be exploited to meet any shortfall”.

In April DECC published an independent report looking at how risks associated with fracking could be mitigated as it considers how shale gas can be part of the UK’s energy mix and support its transition to a low carbon economy.

CBI director for business environment policy Rhian Kelly said the group supports the use of shale gas in the UK – provided safety standards are met, and said it could “unlock significant new infrastructure investments, help meet our carbon reduction goals and create many new jobs around the UK.”

But, unsurprisingly, campaign group Frack-Off disagreed, and slammed the endorsement as further evidence of the “gulf between the concerns of ordinary people and the profit driven motivations of government and industry”.

Frack Off activist Nathan Roberts, said “Lord Smith’s endorsement of commercial-scale fracking in the UK suggests the Environment Agency are either ignorant of the facts or ignoring them.”

“The Environment Agency is not regulating fracking at present as they do not consider it an activity that requires a permit and hence are not actively monitoring the activity.”

Echoing this view, Blackpool and Fylde Green party chair Philip Mitchell, said: “In his statement, Lord Smith doesn’t substantiate his personal opinions with any evidence that it is possible for fracking to be introduced into Britain safely.

“It is a sad reflection of our society that such a senior figure has agreed to being interviewed whilst an official public consultation on the subject is still open, and therefore before he has had an opportunity to listen to whatever comments can be made in the desperately short period that has so far been allowed.”

Lord Smith conceded that while fracking could potentially boost the UK’s energy security, that the environmental impacts remains unclear.

He said: “It won’t always be easy. There will sometimes be occasions where, in seeking one environmental objective, we risk upsetting another.

“Potentially, fracking ticks the box on energy security, on availability and on cost. But does it tick the box on environment? The answer is complex, and is something like “up to a point”.”

Lord Smith added that while he believes gas is less polluting than coal that a drive to boost fracking could result in another “dash for gas”, therefore leaving the UK with a number of gas-fired power stations.

However, he argued that provided the careful use of the drilling technology and “rigorous” monitoring and inspection that shale gas could be a “truly useful part of our energy mix in the years to come”.

In his opinion, this is partly because renewables are “still slow to acquire real mass”, and nuclear “inevitably” takes time to happen. As a result, he said “the attraction of looking to gas as the solution to keeping the lights on will become increasingly strong.”

Lord Smith also voiced his support for renewables generation, such as wave and tidal and nuclear energy as alternatives to coal.

Meanwhile, Ms Hartnell told edie that the REA “is not prima facie against shale gas exploration”, rather the real point is not whether one is “pro- or anti- any given technology, but rather to rank all the various solutions in order of the benefits they bring” and disagreed that renewables are “slow to acquire real mass”.

She said: “The fact is that the UK comes from a very low starting point relative to other European countries and we are still a long way from catching up. However, for all their teething problems, the Feed-in Tariff and the Renewables Obligation show that investors and the public alike have an appetite for renewables.

According to Ms Hartnell, if policies, such as the Renewable Heat Incentive and Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, are well managed by Government, there’s no reason why the UK shouldn’t expect to see the momentum build to the levels required to meet our 2020 targets.

However, to achieve this she said that clarity was “urgently” needed on the trajectory to meeting our renewable transport target; detail on the Elevtrocty market Reform (EMR); and the expansion of the RHI into other technologies and the domestic market.

At the time of going to press no response had been received by Lord Smith.

Carys Matthews

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