Across the UK, Local Authorities and Devolved Administrations are seeking to use their planning powers to block the development of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. This is against UK Government policy. In this blog Dr Sarah Mander from the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering looks at what all of this could mean for the future of shale in the UK.
- Local Authorities in Lancashire and Cheshire are seeking to block plans for fracking development.
- Compatibility of fracking with UK Government climate change commitments is at the heart of these arguments.
- The Committee on Climate Change report finds no place for fracking in UK targets without carbon capture and storage (CCS).
- It is essential for the UK Government to work with industry to develop, and support, viable business models for CCS, including managing the risks of long-term storage.
- Top-down imposition of fracking by Central Government has failed to gain buy-in from sub-national stakeholders and local people (social license).
The North West of England is the frontline of an ongoing battle between energy firms and local people, Local Authorities and climate activists who disagree with the UK Government’s support for shale gas extraction. Energy firm Cuadrilla’s licence for hydraulic fracturing, ‘fracking’, at their Lancashire Preston New Road site expires in November, and the firm have yet to complete gas flow tests at the site. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking, is the injection of water, chemicals and, usually sand, into shale rock formations, increasing the pressure so that the rock fractures (hence fracking) to release trapped natural gas for extraction at the surface. Fracking at the site has been repeatedly halted as Government limits for earth tremors have been breached, although the industry view is that these are so stringent as to make it impossible to develop a domestic onshore gas industry.
Cuadrilla’s licence, is the first in the UK, and was considered a milestone by the shale gas industry which has faced opposition and delays since the first planned projects in 2011. Support for shale gas from UK Government, with a favourable regulatory regime, contrasts with opposition in the communities’ local to potential sites, and from the climate change community. There has been significant, and continued, opposition to the proposed scheme at Preston New Road following Cuadrilla’s announcement of plans to develop the site in October 2014. A planning application for the scheme was rejected by Lancashire County Council in June 2015, but overturned by Central Government following an inquiry in October 2016. Anti-fracking campaigners have objected to the scheme on grounds of both local environmental impacts, for example air pollution, noise and water pollution, and the risk to meeting the UK’s Climate Change targets from continued use of gas. Environmental groups have criticised the use of an injunction by Cuadrilla to restrict protests at the site, under the terms of which protestors have been arrested.
Elsewhere in the North West, the decision by Cheshire West and Chester Council to reject an application by IGas to test an existing well at Ellesmere Port for future gas production was the subject of an eleven day inquiry, following an appeal by the developer, with the final decision yet to be made. Climate change concerns were at the heart of the initial decision by the Local Authority to reject the application. Similarly, the incompatibility of shale extraction with climate change targets was an important reason for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority announcing that it would use its spatial framework to create a presumption against fracking in Greater Manchester.
Does a dash for gas mean missing our climate change targets?
To meet carbon reduction obligations, the carbon intensity of UK electricity generation must reduce from roughly 240 gCO2/kWh to 100 gCO2/kWh by 2030, and be near zero by 2050. Any role for coal or natural gas generation will depend on successful deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process for capturing and storing the emissions from fossil fuels. Two competitions to deploy CCS were cancelled by the UK Government for reasons of cost and the technology has yet to be demonstrated for gas generation or in the UK. CCS has further applications to decarbonise high emitting industries, and producing hydrogen which could potentially be used to decarbonise heating, with an important role to play in achieving the UK’s ‘net zero’ ambitions. A recent report from the Government’s CCUS Cost Challenge Taskforce found that for CCS to be deployed at sufficient scale to help meet climate change targets, construction on initial schemes would need to start by 2022. To achieve this, it is essential for Government to work with the industry to develop, and support, viable business models including managing the risks of long-term storage.
Controlling emissions from fracking
In their assessment of the compatibility of the extraction of shale gas with the UK’s Climate Change targets, the Government’s independent advisors on climate change, The Committee on Climate Change, find that shale gas is incompatible with the targets unless three conditions are met:
- Emissions from shale gas wells must be tightly controlled to avoid any leakage of natural gas.
- Emissions from the consumption of shale gas must remain within the UKs carbon budgets; this means that domestic gas use has to replace imported gas, and that use of unabated gas (where carbon emissions aren’t captured) must reduce over time.
- Any emissions from the production of shale gas have to be included in the UK’s carbon budgets and compensated for by further reductions from other sectors.
In response to these conditions, the Government has stated that strong regulation would be put in place to meet these tests but this has not yet been forthcoming. This is crucial given that evidence from some sites in the US suggests that there is considerable leakage of methane from both conventional and unconventional gas wells. In the UK, the Environment Agency found Cuadrilla to have breached the conditions of their environmental permit at Preston New Road and, after review of the site flare records, concluded that the nitrogen lift technique they were using had stopped their greenhouse gas mitigation from working.
To achieve the UK’s ‘net zero’ policy, sectors where emissions can be reduced to zero including electricity generation, heat and land transport will need to do so, and ‘negative emissions technology’ such as combining bio-energy with CCS to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, will be required to compensate for those sectors such as aviation and agriculture where technological options do not, as yet, exist. Given that Government policies do not yet put the UK on course to meet the 4th and 5th carbon budgets, and the UK does not have CCS, it is hard to see how condition 3 could be met.
The ongoing protests, presumption against development and rejected planning applications demonstrate that the UK Government does not have a social licence, for shale extraction. There is a lack of trust in the industry, shale extraction is not considered a credible technology in the fight against climate change and the legitimacy of Central Government reversing the outcomes of local planning decisions is questioned by local people. Once trust, credibility and legitimacy are lost, they are very hard to regain.