Response to David Cameron’s statement on shale gas

The Prime Minister has recently made the case that we cannot afford to miss out on shale gas basing his argument on energy price, jobs, community benefits, safety and myths.

From the local perspective the Chew Valley is almost entirely within the Greenbelt and the Mendip Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is home to Bristol’s water supply. Most of the valley is also within the Bristol-Somerset coalfield and is licensed for coalbed methane and shale gas exploration and development.

The Prime Minister and local MP Jacob Rees-Mogg are almost lone voices arguing that shale gas will bring energy prices down. The Oxford Institute of Energy Studies, the Committee on Climate Change, Cuadrilla and many others agree that UK shale gas will have a marginal if any effect on UK energy prices.

The Prime Minister argues that shale gas could provide 51 years of gas supply despite the fact that the British Geological Survey says that it is not yet possible to make any estimate of gas reserves.

The Prime Minister argues that shale gas may create 74,000 jobs but this has been described as “wildly optimistic”. Who funded this estimate? Cuadrilla. Who is Chairman of Cuadrilla? Lord Browne. Who is Lord Browne? David Cameron’s non-executive advisor in the Cabinet Office. Jobs created are likely to be short-term external contractors rather than jobs within the community.

The Prime Minister says that communities near exploration wells will receive £100,000, having previously said it was £1,000,000. However the industry’s Community Engagement Charter is dependent on an operator’s membership of UKOOG and the exploration incentive only applies where fracking (not drilling) takes place during exploration and appraisal. So, for example, exploration in Balcombe is not eligible because fracking will not take place at this stage. Test wells in Somerset probably wouldn’t be eligible either. Informed local communities are unlikely to accept financial bribes, even when they are available, in exchange for their environment and well-being.

Unconventional gas exploitation has the potential to cause a host of pollutants both above and below the surface. The Royal Academy of Engineers has said that well failures, leaks and surface spills are common to all oil and gas operations. There is growing international evidence that unconventional gas can cause environmental damage. This year our regulatory system failed to prevent massive damage in the coal industry at the Daw Mills colliery. Regulation doesn’t necessarily mean safety as the coal, banking and offshore oil and gas industries well know.

The Prime Minister says that fracking will not damage the countryside and that pads are the size of a cricket pitch (61.5 sq m). The industry on the other hand say each fracking pad occupies 2 ha (20,000 sq m). Unlike conventional oil and gas drilling coalbed methane requires a dense network of fracking pads. In Australia coalbed methane pads are 800m apart, which if repeated here would lead to a huge industrialisation of the landscape.

The Prime Minister makes no mention of greenhouse gas emissions or that emissions from unconventional gas do not displace more polluting sources, such as coal, but rather add to them because the coal is simply burnt elsewhere. The government does not publish its report on the impacts of shale gas on greenhouse gas emissions until next month.

The Prime Minister makes no mention of the documented health implications of living in an unconventional gas field.

So who is peddling myths? This is a deeply flawed and rushed energy policy which creates problems rather than solutions. We need a sensible low-carbon energy policy supported by the electorate which protects our local and global environments and which provides long-term energy and climate security and jobs rather than a short-term dash for cash. Thankfully BANES has adopted a sensible position on unconventional gas, insofar as it can. It is time the government did also.