What’s shale gas?
What has been announced today?
The government has opened the 14th onshore
oil and gas licensing round. A
licensing round is when firms get the chance to apply for
exclusive rights to search for and extract oil and gas from beneath
blocks of land measuring 10 by 10 kilometres.
The round announced today closes on 28 October this
year. The last round was held six years ago when few had heard of
It is only four years since the first exploratory well
to look for shale gas in the UK was
tremors caused by early shale exploration operations in
2011 delayed the launch of the 14th licensing round, preparations
for which had also begun in 2010.
Today’s announcement and any licenses handed out as a result do
not grant permission to actually start fracking. Other regulatory
permissions are required first – see below.
Which parts of the country are being opened up
From today firms can apply for licences covering
about 96,000 square kilometres of land. The UK covers 244,000
square kilometres – so that’s around two-fifths of the total. The
area on offer is shown in pink on the map below. Including the
yellow areas already licensed for exploration, about half of the
country is available for fracking.
Analysis from Greenpeace Energydesk shows the areas available
for licensing include 10 of the country’s 13 national parks and the
UK’s 10 largest cities. Could London could be fracked? We think
How much gas is there?
The British Geological Survey (BGS) has
estimated how much shale gas is trapped in rocks under the
shale in Lancashire, the
Weald basin in Sussex and the
Midland valley in Scotland. The Bowland
shale has significant quantities of gas – an estimated 1,300
trillion cubic feet (tcf). The Midland valley is thought to have 80
tcf. The Weald has very little gas but an estimated 4.4 billion
barrels of shale oil.
Only fractions of these quantities will be
recoverable. Experience in the US suggests up to 10 per cent for
shale gas and just a few per cent for oil, but take that figure
with apinch of salt – it all depends on the geology of each
That means estimates for the recoverable quantity of gas range
The US Energy Information Administration says the UK has 5 tcf. The
BGS says its 26 tcf. There is an estimated
7,299 tcf of shale gas technically recoverable around the
For comparison, the UK uses about 3 tcf per year – so we’re
talking about something between 2.5 and 13 years worth of UK gas
Will firms be able to drill in national
The government says there was “strong support”
for an outright ban on fracking in all environmentally sensitive
responses to a consultation that ended in
March. It says it acknowledges public concerns but has not backed a
Instead the government says applications to
frack in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty
“should be refused, except in exceptional circumstances and where
it can be demonstrated that they are in the public interest”. The
precise impact of this wording will remain unclear until tested
during the planning process and ultimately in the
Some other parts of the country will get special
environmental consideration. Any firm wanting to frack in or near
areas will be subject to additional assessment
requirements. These can have real impact. For instance Cuadrilla
dropped plans to drill and frack at a site in Westby,
last October because it was close to a
population of whooper swans, a European protected species. There is
large concentration of European protected
areas in north west England.
Does the public support fracking?
Public opposition to fracking seems to be
increasing the closer we get to actually
having a shale gas industry. A Carbon Brief
poll last summer found just 18 per cent
would support a shale gas well within 10 miles of their home. The
government survey found 22 per cent opposed
to shale exploration generally, 29 per cent in favour and 44 per
There are now 130 opposition groups across the country and
two-thirds of Sussex people want a
moratorium, according to Geoffrey Lean in the Telegraph. New
energy minister Matthew Hancock was
unable to name a community that supported fracking when asked
Will that be a
barrier to fracking? It will almost
certainly slow down development – but ultimately economic and
regulatory barriers will probably be more significant.
When would fracking start?
Getting an exploration licence is just the first
step. The government has published a ‘
roadmap‘ of the multiple different
permissions required before fracking can
begin. Any one of these can be a stumbling block. This was
demonstrated last week when West Sussex county council
refused planning permission to shale firm
Celtique Energie in a dispute over truck movements.
Can they frack under my living
Under current law drilling fracking wells under
peoples’ homes constitutes trespass. This would not prevent
fracking from taking place, but there would have to be a
potentially lengthy legal process leading to
relatively small amounts of compensation for landowners.
The government is
consulting until 15 August on plans to
change the law. This would speed up the process and would formalise
a standard compensation package for communities affected by
Will shale gas bring down energy
The short answer is no – according to the shale
industry and most
others. Costs to extract shale gas
expected to be much higher in the UK than in
the US, where the industry has helped prices plummet. Even if the
UK were to import US shale gas it might not bring down prices
because of the costs associated with liquefying, transporting and
UK gas prices are set within a large European
market so without a shale revolution across the continent it’s hard
to see UK exploitation making much difference. Only a handful of
fracking cheerleaders continue to insist shale gas will make energy
cheap in the UK.
Is shale gas good for the
Emissions from gas-fired electricity are half
those from coal, leading some to argue it can be a clean ‘bridging
fuel’ on the road to a low-carbon future. Others argue that, on the
contrary, methane leaks during extraction make fracking dirtier
But could a UK shale revolution bring down the
country’s emissions overall? Not according to the
government. The CCC says the UK power sector
must be essentially decarbonised by 2030 so there’s a limited
window in which to use gas without adding expensive carbon capture
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
concluded earlier this year that shale gas
could play a role in the global decarbonisation effort – but only
if it is carried out in a controlled way, used as a substitute for
higher-emitting coal, and with emissions from the energy sector as
a whole shrinking rapidly towards zero by mid-century.