The latest instalment in the UK’s shale gas debate unfolded on Monday at the Royal Society, where Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, set out his cautious yet optimistic case.
Rewind a couple of years and the words ‘shale gas’ and ‘fracking’ were likely to have conjured up two things in the minds of the British public: flaming taps and earthquakes.
Since then, the debate has ebbed and flowed but never gone away. And all the while I’ve been following it with interest. Some defining moments so far include:
- The publication of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering’s influential report in June 2012;
- The Government’s announcement in December 2012 that it would a) lift the moratorium on drilling for shale gas, and b) accept all of the recommendations made by the two academies;
- The British Geological Survey’s publication in June 2013 of a new – and considerably higher – estimate of the amount of gas trapped in northern England’s Bowland Shale;
- And this summer’s protests against test drilling in Sussex, including the arrest of one of the ‘anti’ movement’s most high-profile campaigners.
Cue 9 September 2013: the next chapter in the shale gas saga.
Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, on Monday delivered a speech to the Royal Society entitled ‘Is Shale Gas the New North Sea?: The Myths and Realities of Shale Gas Exploration’. Followed by a panel discussion and audience Q&A, the speech was timed to coincide with the launch of a new report by Professor David Mackay FRS. Mackay’s report examines the greenhouse gas emissions associated with shale gas extraction and use (a topic the academies’ report did not set out to examine, but highlighted as needing further research), putting, in Davey’s words, ‘another piece of the puzzle in place’.
And a puzzle is exactly what the UK’s relationship with shale gas has become: complex and multifaceted, as Monday’s event underlined. It was out with the two dimensions of flaming taps and earthquakes, and in with the nuances of climate change commitments, tax revenues and energy security. Out with hyperbole and polarised views and in with balance and measure. It seems the debate has matured (and not just by virtue of the passing of time) since I first encountered it two years ago.
As Davey put it: ‘it’s in the national interest to move on from the arguments of zealots and vested interests, and start a debate about how best to proceed safely with shale gas exploration, where we maximise the real positive benefits and minimise the inevitable negative impacts.’