Are we fit to frack?

Shale gas and fracking

‘Fracking’ shale gas threatens to undermine the UK’s commitments to fighting climate change and protecting nature.

Why we don't support fracking

The RSPB is working to hold government to its climate commitments, stop inappropriate development and ensure the regulatory regime for this industry is fit for purpose.

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

  • The regulatory framework for the industry does not provide sufficient protection for the natural environment.
  • There is evidence from the Committee on Climate Change that the exploitation of shale gas may not be compatible with the UK’s emissions reduction targets.
Snowdrops Galanthus nivalis

What is shale gas and ‘fracking’?

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 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 and Lancashire 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. 

Fairy Glen RSPB reserve. Foliage: young leaves back-lit, glow a vivid green. The Black Isle, Ross-shire, near Rosemarkie, Scotland

Why are we concerned?

  • In 2014 we came together with several other conservation charities to pose the question ‘are we fit to frack?’. The reports we published, peer-reviewed by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, found that there could be substantial risks to the environment as a result of fracking in the UK.
  • We made several recommendations for changes to the regulatory regime. These included a ban on fracking in protected areas for wildlife. After a successful campaign and lobbying work, government did introduce a ban on fracking at the surface within these areas.
  • 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 5,000-10,000 individual sites might be needed over the lifetime of commercial extraction. This area includes many sites that are rich in wildlife, such as Morecambe Bay and the Ribble Estuary.
  • In 2015 the UK Government handed out 159 new licences for petroleum exploration and development across England. Hundreds of sites which are valuable for wildlife lie within these licence areas.
  • Shale gas extraction often results in fugitive methane emissions, ie methane which is leaked into the air. As well as being bad for air quality, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. We’re worried the shale gas industry could undermine UK efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle climate change. A report by the Committee on Climate Change concludes that fracking for shale gas would not be compatible with the UK’s carbon budgets under current policy.
  • 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.

159 new licences across England were handed out by the Government in 2015. Only a few planning applications have come forward so far, but more are expected in the coming years and we will monitor the situation closely for any risks to wildlife.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland there are moratoria of some kind on fracking. However, these are not legally binding and we will be monitoring the situation very closely.

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 and working to better understand the risks to the environment.
  • Working to improve the regulatory regime for shale gas exploration and exploitation so that the environment and wildlife is better protected.
Climate March to Westminster,"for all of us leave it in the ground", Millbank, London