Same issues, different countries? The issues surrounding shale gas extraction

Blog by Dr Tina Hunter, a Reader in Energy Law and the co-Director of our Centre for Energy Law

The last few years has seen the British public turn its attention to the alleged evils of shale gas extraction in the countryside. Community concerns include the contamination of ground water, the impact of the activity on the local environment, inability of shale gas extraction and agriculture to coexist, and the continued use of fossil fuels. This community consternation started at Preese Hall in Lancashire in 2011, where the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas test wells created low level seismicity, and shone a spotlight on the process, which is better known by its colloquial term ‘fracking’.  The public response to these small earthquakes was fast and furious – condemnation, indignation and agitation. The government response was no less fast or furious – moratorium, independent report and government assurance. One year and two reports later, the moratorium was lifted, and the UK (excluding Scotland) was ‘open for business’, with the UK government declaring (and rightly so) that the UK regulatory framework for shale gas development was one of the best in the world.

Whilst the UK government felt that the outcome was ‘crisis averted’, the public was less satisfied. Protests at Balcombe in 2013 demonstrated wide scale public consternation over ‘fracking’ in the UK. The Balcombe protest targeted the drilling of a test well (including the possible hydraulic fracturing of the well) at Lower Stumble Wood near Balcombe by Cuadrilla Resources, the same company that drilled the wells at Preese Hall in 2011 that caused low-level seismicity. Similar protests and public consternation have occurred in the Lancashire area where applications for exploration drilling at Little Plumpton and Roseacre Wood were rejected by Lancashire County Council in June 2015, citing noise and traffic impact as the grounds for planning refusal.

One major criticism levelled by those opposing shale gas extraction relates to whether the activity should be undertaken at all. After all, the UK has North Sea gas, and the shortfall of energy can be made up with renewable energy, especially wind power. The UK government energy policy includes the use of such renewable energy as part of its clean energy future, with a reduction of the use of coal. However, the UK government sees the development of shale gas resources as essential to UK energy policy, with gas from shale rocks representing a fuel that is lower in carbon, and will provide a ‘bridge’ from high carbon coal to a low carbon energy future. Therein lies the conundrum. The UK government wants to develop shale gas resources for the energy security of the UK, and the anti-fracking lobby wants to ban the development of shale gas, because of its impact on the groundwater, the local environment, and land use activities. This raises a fundamental question for UK society – how can energy security be guaranteed in the UK without the development of shale gas?

The concerns that have been raised by UK communities are very similar to those expressed in Australian rural and remote communities. Having just returned from presenting at the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association Conference (PDF) in Alice Springs, I have been struck by the commonalities between the issues that are raised by UK and Australian communities regarding the impact of shale gas activities.

At first blush, it would appear that the vast expanse of the Australian outback, with its cattle stations half the size of Wales, and semi-rural England have little in common. Yet on close examination there is a plethora of similarities.

Both are facing changes to the physical and social environments as shale gas exploration and production is planned for the communities.

Both have concerns that hydraulic fracturing of wells will contaminate ground water resources.

Both are concerned that such shale gas exploration and extraction activities will bring increased traffic and community impacts.

Both are concerned whether existing agricultural activities can exist alongside proposed shale gas activities.

What is striking about these concerns is the universal nature of them, whether it is rural, semi-rural, or the middle of nowhere. Although these concerns are valid, a strong legal framework is able to address such concerns. The legal frameworks of the Northern Territory and the UK are both robust, able to legitimately regulate the shale gas extraction and its impact on the land.

An important difference between the UK and Australia is the issue of use of the shale gas that is extracted. Unlike the UK, Australia is awash with offshore conventional gas resources that are yet to be developed. In the Northern Territory, which is the latest Australian jurisdiction earmarked for large-scale development of its unconventional resources, energy security is not an issue: energy needs for the Northern Territory are met by the Blacktip Gas field in the nearby Timor Sea, providing 100% of the gas needs of the Northern Territory for at least the next 25 years. Instead, the shale gas resources are being explored and targeted for development for export to overseas markets, especially the lucrative Asian energy market. It is this use of the gas that has caused consternation in Northern Territory landholders. Landholders in Queensland have raised similar concerns where coal seam gas has been extracted for export to Asia.

This disparity in the use of extracted shale gas raises an important issue for consideration. Are there circumstances where the development of shale gas resources is more acceptable than others? Such a consideration is valid in the UK, where shale gas is to be extracted to meet the energy security needs of the country, compared to the Northern Territory, where private companies will extract shale gas for sale to Asian purchasers. At present community resistance to shale gas extraction is comparable, and the end use of the gas seems to have little bearing on community resistance to shale gas extraction.

These similarities in concerns, regardless of size of community or use of the shale gas produced, demonstrate that the community consternation is aimed at the extraction process itself, not the end product.

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