The UK’s dependence on overseas gas means we have little choice but to explore shale reserves in this country

Nick Cullen

The United Kingdom’s carbon emissions have fallen from 600 million tonnes (mt) per annum in 1991 to 492mt in 2012. A significant proportion of this decline has been due to a switch from coal to gas in our electricity generation sector, the so called “dash for gas”.

Much of this gas was from the UK continental shelf and enabled the UK, for a short time at least, to be energy independent. The last few years have however seen a rapid decline in UK gas production and a rise in imports. Energy is now a significant proportion of the current account deficit with other countries, and gas imports alone are forecast to cost close to £18bn in 2015, which, when compared to the current UK net current account deficit of £100bn, is significant. The UK already has a higher account deficit than at any time since the Second World War at 4.4% of GDP.

The UK needs to do many things to address this. A key part must surely be energy related and should seek to find ways to reduce import dependency. Decreasing demand, improving efficiency and increasing indigenous renewable energy generation are all essential parts of the solution, but given the UK’s existing energy infrastructure and the investment in gas distribution of the last 30 years, so is shale gas and hydraulic fracturing.

The argument with most traction is that the world cannot afford to go on extracting more and more fossil fuel, at some point we must stop

According to the British Geological Survey the shale gas reserves below Lancashire alone amount to some 1,300 trillion cubic feet (that’s 36.8 trillion m3 for those not in the US). Whilst there is little likelihood of recovering that amount, the economic benefit to the UK of extracting a significant proportion is obvious.

So why is shale gas and hydraulic fracturing so controversial? A mix of concerns abound: from a fear of earthquakes, enough to rattle a teacup or two; water and air pollution; and good old fashioned nimbyism. These must of course be addressed but the UK regulatory regime of oil and gas is well established and the onshore oil and gas industry has been operating in the UK largely unnoticed for many decades. The argument with most traction is that the world cannot afford to go on extracting more and more fossil fuel, at some point we must stop. Perhaps the unspoken worry is that a shale gas boom may actually reduce gas prices, thereby lessening the economic benefit of reducing demand and increasing low carbon renewable generation.

The UK has an ambitious target set out in law to cut our emissions by 80% by 2050. To achieve this we must be able to pay for it and as we have seen over the last few months the social and political acceptability of ever higher energy prices has its limits. Somehow we must find a way to balance the environmental concerns with the social and economic realities and start drilling.

Nick Cullen is a partner at Hoare Lea