Professor Lord Mair speaking in the House of Lords
Opening the debate that took place on 7 March, Lord Truscott, former UK Energy Minister and vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Shale Gas Regulation and Planning, presented key findings and considerations to date, introducing the “controversial subject” that “will hear many different views”. He stated that the Government and Parliament as a whole are determined to develop shale gas in the UK but questioned whether this development has been thoroughly thought through in all its ramifications.
The drive for energy security, economic growth and job creation associated with the potential commercial success of shale gas for the UK was highlighted and the financial boom that shale gas development has delivered to the US provided positive examples. However, accounts of groundwater pollution as a result of fracking in Pennsylvania and earthquakes with a magnitude of three and over recorded in Oklahoma were referred to alongside concerns for the UK, including environmental impact, water contamination, earth tremors and lack of public support.
Professor Lord Mair, Head of CSIC, was chairman of the committee that produced in 2012 the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering report, Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing – an independent review requested by the Government Chief Scientific Adviser at that time that arose from experiences of seismicity in the Blackpool area in 2011, shortly after the fracking of an exploratory shale gas well at the Preese Hall site.
Lord Mair said: “In discussing the environmental benefits of shale gas, it is also important to address potential environmental risks from a science and engineering standpoint. Our remit was to review the available scientific and engineering evidence associated with fracking, identify the major risks and consider whether these could be managed effectively in the UK. Our report concluded that shale gas extraction can be undertaken safely in the UK, provided that operational best practices are implemented and enforced through robust regulation. Vital to the effective management of risks is comprehensive and rigorous monitoring.”
Underlining the significance of geology in shaping outcomes, Lord Mair continued: “The potential economic and environmental benefits of shale gas development in the UK can only be properly evaluated by undertaking exploratory drilling and fracking.The type and composition of gas extracted and the proved reserves will vary depending on the detailed geology, so each site has to be investigated on a case-by-case basis. ‘Proved reserves’ means the volume that is economically recoverable. It is this that will really determine the potential economic benefits, which will only become clear when appropriate exploratory drilling has been completed. That is why it is so important for exploratory drilling to proceed without delay.
Lord Mair recommended proceeding cautiously “with well-controlled exploratory drilling, with a strong regulatory framework, robust environmental risk assessments and rigorous monitoring regimes”. He concluded: “Only this will provide the evidence needed to properly assess the economic and environmental benefits of shale gas development in the UK.”