21st March

Could fracking for shale gas return to the Irish agenda?

North Yorkshire County Council’s decision in May to approve plans for fracking shale gas ends a four-year moratorium in the UK on the controversial technology, and is certain to renew interest in the process in Ireland.

Despite 4,000 representations from the public against and 30 in favour, the county council’s planning committee voted 7:4 to allow Third Energy to test the commercial viability of fracking shale rock in the district of Rydale.Fracking

                                                                                                                          Courtesy of Tamboran Resources

Speaking on BBC radio, Professor Paul Ekins ― Director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College London and an authority on fracking ― described the development as “a political watershed.

“Whether it’s relevant elsewhere is not so certain because this is an application at a currently existing well that has been in place since 2013. Therefore, the economics are obviously going to be more favourable than drilling a new well.

“Gas prices are currently very low, they’ve fallen 75% in the US since 2008, and it’s not at all clear to me that at this well or anywhere else, the technology will in fact be economically viable at these prices.”

He added that Third Energy “obviously have their own business plans that suggest that it might be profitable some time in the future, and they may be thinking that gas prices will go up again, and indeed they may go up modestly though I would very much doubt they’ll get back anywhere near to their 2008 highs.”

Energy security

As for the argument that fracking for gas was essential in order to guarantee energy security in the UK, the professor said that globally, shale gas was not needed.

“The world is awash with gas and the UK already has substantial import facilities for us to be able to import the gas that we need. So in my view, the energy security argument is almost entirely specious. But there are obviously issues to do with jobs, revenues, and potential taxes.

“Like any new industrial development, fracking can bring investment, it can bring jobs, and that seems to me to be the grounds on which the government is favouring the technology,” he said.

As for claims by opponents that fracking has caused localised earthquakes and groundwater contamination, Professor Ekins said it was possible to regulate the industry “so that local environmental impacts are acceptable.

“This government is not a notable advocate of regulation, and in fact it has cut back the Environmental Agency’s staff in capacity. Provided that rules are followed then I think it’s very likely that the technology can be safely deployed.”

If fracking is to expand on a major scale, Professor Ekins wonders if the Environmental Agency at its current size would be able to enforce the rules.

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