Large Scale Shale Gas Extraction in the UK?

The extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ has been a controversial subject since it entered the mainstream media in 2007, following Cuadrilla resources’ shale gas exploration in Lancashire. Enormous reserves of shale gas, estimated at 150 billion cubic metres (Gm3) have been discovered in the UK, which equates to around a 470 year supply. Economically, shale gas is potentially an extremely valuable resource, but what would the environmental impacts be?

Many media outlets and environmental groups were quick to condemn shale gas extraction, asserting its dangers after the earthquakes caused by the fracking in Lancashire in 2011 as well as its potential for the pollution of the environment through gas leaks and water contamination.

Current literature compares the GWP (global warming potential) of shale gas with conventional gas and coal. Most studies have estimated the GWP to be similar to that of gas and much lower than coal. Additionally, if it were to replace the burning of gas and coal in the UK, the decrease in the demand for imported fossil fuels would lead to a reduction in carbon emissions. Despite this, the availability of shale gas would depress investment in lower carbon energy solutions such as nuclear and renewables. A decrease in coal imports from countries with shale gas reserves could also drive global coal prices down, potentially increasing its consumption in other countries.

Estimates for shale gas were compared with the impacts of other energy sources in one study, where it was found to perform better in some aspects than conventional fuels and renewables, such as its effect on freshwater, marine and human toxicities. However it had by far the highest potential for the creation of smog and terrestrial toxicity.

More research into the effects of fracking is necessary and whether large scale fracking commences in the UK remains to be seen. If it does, it will need to be stringently controlled and monitored to ensure the safety of the environment and local population, as well as the workers.

Diagram of shale gas extraction (BBC, 2013)

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Ben Hutchings

Zoology Graduate / Bartender / Aspiring Conservationist!

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