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Shale gas

Fracking - US

Image: Mark Godfrey - TNC

‘Fracking’ shale gas threatens to undermine the UK’s commitments to fighting climate change and protecting nature. The RSPB is working to hold Government to its climate commitments, stop inappropriate development and ensure that the regulatory regime for this industry is fit for purpose.

The RSPB does not support shale gas extraction in the UK because:

  1. The  regulatory framework for the industry does not provide sufficient protection for the natural environment. 
  2. Government has not put forward a convincing case that demonstrates that shale gas extraction will not undermine the UK’s ability to meet its legally binding climate change targets or its broader commitment to keeping global climate change to within ‘safe limits’.

What is shale gas?

Shale gas is methane that is trapped inside shale rock formations deep underground. It’s harder to extract than conventional natural gas and up until now it hasn’t made sense financially to do so. However, advances in drilling techniques mean that it’s now a more attractive prospect and is being actively pursued by developers and Government alike. 

What is hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’?

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly abbreviated to ‘fracking’, is the process used to get shale gas to flow into a borehole so it can be captured. After drilling a standard well, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure to create fractures in the rock. The sand props these fractures open, enabling the shale gas to flow into the borehole. 

Media coverage of protests in West Sussex shows what shale gas exploration looks like. At the exploration stage a single well is drilled and fracked to ascertain whether the amount of gas that can be extracted from that site is enough to justify a full scale commercial development. If they decide to proceed, ten or more wells could be drilled from a single well pad due to advances in directional drilling. 

Why are we concerned?

  • Shale gas operations pose risks for water quality and biodiversity. For example, by disturbing birds and wildlife with traffic and drilling noises, through an increased risk of water contamination and by putting additional stress on areas already affected by water scarcity. The impacts on the environment are poorly understood but potentially significant and we don’t think existing environmental regulation is adequate to manage these risks. 
  • Cumulative impacts at the landscape level could be extremely significant. Commercial extraction of shale gas involves many drill sites dotted across the landscape. Estimates for the Bowland shale, for example, which runs across the North of England, suggest that 5000-10000 individual sites might be needed over the lifetime of commercial extraction, each about one to two hectares in size. This area includes many sites that are rich in wildlife, such as Morecambe Bay and the Ribble Estuary.
  • Shale gas extraction often results in fugitive methane emissions, i.e. methane that is leaked into the air. As well as being bad for air quality, methane is a potent greenhouse gas and they’re largely what’s causing climate change. We’re worried that the shale gas industry could undermine UK efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change.  
  • The Government is heavily promoting shale gas with few conditions, threatening to undermine the regulatory regime. For example, new tax incentives are being introduced for the industry with no conditions attached to them. Furthermore, environmental protections appear to be being relaxed rather than ensuring they are fit for purpose.  The environmental permitting regime, for example, is being simplified so that exploration licenses will be issued within 2-3 weeks rather than the standard 13 weeks, and planning guidance for shale gas seems to provide an easier route to planning permission for shale gas than it does for renewable energy. 
  • Even if fugitive methane emissions can be controlled shale gas extraction could still increase emissions. In the US, where shale gas has replaced coal, there has been a reduction in domestic emissions. However, the displaced coal is still being extracted; it’s just being exported, increasing emissions elsewhere. Ultimately, we can only burn so much carbon if we are to avoid dangerous levels of climate change. In the absence of serious, global action to limit fossil fuel combustion, UK shale gas risks being used in addition rather than instead of existing fossil fuels.

Could shale gas developments affect your area?

Shale gas developments will only occur where there are shale formations. A map showing the location of shale formations in the UK is available on the British Geological survey website.

Licenses have already been granted in several parts of the UK but applications for planning permission and environmental permits have only been received in Lancashire, Sussex and Northern Ireland so far. More applications are expected soon and many more could come forward over the next few years if the Department of Energy and Climate Change goes ahead with plans to hold new licensing rounds for onshore oil and gas exploration. 

What are we doing about it?

The RSPB is:

  • Lobbying Government not to pursue fossil fuels at the expense of the environment, and at the expense of meeting UK climate change targets or our wider commitment to avoiding dangerous climate change.
  • Carefully monitoring applications for new shale gas projects.
  • Working to improve the regulatory regime for shale gas exploration and exploitation so that the environment and wildlife is better protected.

Are we fit to frack?

Poorly regulated fracking risks harming threatened species and polluting our waterways. As a partnership of leading conservation charities we came together to understand how serious these risks are and asked the question ‘are we fit to frack?’ More...

Are we fit to frack?

How you can help

In February the UK Government promised to keep England’s most important places for wildlife safe from fracking. Now it may go back on its word. Join the fight to protect our natural treasures and email the Government today.

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