Lord Smith 'hugely sceptical' of fracking for shale oil in the UK
The former chief of the Environment Agency is "hugely sceptical" on the prospects of fracking for shale oil in the UK, saying it is far from clear that the process should be used to extract quantities of oil from downlands in the south-east of England.
Lord Smith of Finsbury, better known as Chris Smith when he was a Labour MP and minister, said: “The environmental case for shale oil is much more adverse than for shale gas. It’s much more difficult to make the case for shale oil.”
Smith chairs the taskforce on shale gas, an independent group funded by fracking companies to examine how shale gas exploration should be overseen, which on Wednesday advocated that a new single regulator should be put in charge of all inland gas and oil extraction in the UK, whether from shale fracking or other methods.
Shale gas is known to be present in the north of England and in Scotland, according to the British Geological Survey. But in the south of England the main resource underground is in the form of oil. The protests at Balcombe in 2013 were focused on a site where oil reserves have been found, though many of the protests were focused on gas.
The difference between fracking for gas and for oil, which has so far been glossed over by the government, is profound. Fracking is the blasting of dense shale rock with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, to create tiny fissures that release the microscopic bubbles of fossil fuels trapped within them. Gas is much less messy to extract, involving the piping to the surface of methane that rises easily to pipes where it can be collected at the surface. Piping out viscous shale oil is harder work, and in the US – where fracking has revolutionised the energy industry in the past decade – it was developed only long after gas fracking had taken off.
Gas is also an easier sell environmentally: the fuel burns much more cleanly than oil, with less carbon dioxide produced. The UK is likely to be dependent on gas for a long time on current rates, as it is widely used in heating as well as electricity generation.
Shale oil has a far greater “carbon footprint” when extracted.
Lord Smith said the new regulator he was proposing should be in charge of both oil and gas, from fracking and from conventional methods of fuel extraction on land. It would solve the problem of the fragmented state of current regulation, which is shared among the Environment Agency, the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and the Health and Safety Executive, as well as local authorities. He said it would probably take about two to three years to set up such a unified regulator.
The taskforce on shalegas carried out research among local communities that had been or could be affected by shale gas extraction, and found that the noise and nuisance of lorry journeys required to service the drilling sites was of the most concern to residents. The taskforce, in a report published on Wednesday, found that companies had not done all they could to explain their activities to residents, and that the public had the right to expect the highest standards of regulation and effective monitoring.
“The current regulatory oversight for any potential shale gas industry at national level does not command the public confidence that is necessary,” the taskforce concluded. “Public consultation over proposed shale gas exploration and development sites has not been wholly effective and the systems put in place for public consultation are not seen by communities as serving the interests of the public. The current system effectively allows operators to meet all of their statutory requirements – and more – without adequately addressing the concerns of local communities.”