Shale Gas - Energy and Climate Change Committee Contents

7  Conclusion

166.  The process of hydraulic fracturing has been described as "old as Moses" and certainly has been used in the petroleum industry for decades. However, it is only in the last decade that we have seen the effects of shale gas exploration and production on a large scale, as the combination of hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling have made the resources economically viable. Unconventional gas is just "natural gas" from a different type of rock. Whilst the term "unconventional" refers to the type of reservoir in which the gas is found, the techniques for accessing it are the same as you would used for a conventional well. Shale gas exploration is still in its infancy in the UK and the rest of Europe, which gives us the opportunity to learn from US experience and make regulations that are evidence-based. While hydraulic fracturing itself poses no direct risk to underground water aquifers, there is a risk of contamination through a failure in the integrity of the well, but these risks are no different than those encountered when exploiting oil and gas from conventional reservoirs. We are, however, concerned about the large volume of water and chemical additives required for hydraulic fracturing each well, and the large volumes of waste water generated, especially as commercial shale gas production requires so many more wells than conventional gas.

167.  As shale gas exploration progresses in Poland, the UK needs to work with the rest of Europe to ensure that shale gas policy and regulation is not driven primarily by concerns about energy security. In regions already experiencing water stress—the number of which might increase as a result of climate change—the water required by hydraulic fracturing could exacerbate the situation. The volume of waste water generated must not outpace the capacity and capability of treatment facilities to deal with it nor with the availability of disposal sites. The industry should recycle as much of the waste water generated as practicable.

168.  The UK could have a large amount of shale gas offshore, and we encourage the Government to incentivise exploration of this potential resource. However, estimates of the UK's onshore shale gas resources suggest that there will not be a "shale gas revolution" in the UK based on domestic resources alone—nevertheless, they could make us more self-sufficient by reducing our reliance on imported natural gas. If significant amounts of shale gas enter the natural gas market it will disincentivise investment in renewables and other lower carbon technologies. The UK Government needs to manage this risk in order to achieve its aim of generating more electricity from renewable sources.

169.  The Government needs to be cautious in its approach to natural gas as a transition fuel to a low carbon economy. Although emissions from gas power plants are less than from coal, they are still higher than many lower carbon technologies. The main component of natural gas is methane, which is a greenhouse gas far more potent the carbon dioxide. However, the main source of this methane would be through leaks (or so-called "fugitive emissions") from the well and/or pipelines, which can be easily minimised through appropriate regulation and enforcement. Furthermore, the emergence of shale gas—and the likelihood that it will lead to the increased use of gas in power plants—means that we need to pursue with increased urgency the development of carbon capture technology suitable for gas as well as coal.

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Prepared 23 May 2011