UK lawmakers green light shale gas drilling

May 23, 2011 - 4:44 PM

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers said Monday that shale gas resources in Britain should be developed to reduce the country's reliance on imported supplies.

A report from the cross-party Energy and Climate Change Committee released on Monday rejected calls for a moratorium on the controversial energy source amid concerns about its impact on public health and the environment.

The approval makes it likely that Britain will follow in the footsteps of Poland, which last week announced plans for major investment in shale gas to break free of dependence on Russian imports and boost its economy.

The British Geological Survey estimates that Britain's onshore shale gas resources could be as large as 150 billion cubic meters — equivalent to roughly 1.5 years of total U.K. gas consumption and worth approximately 28 billion pounds ($45 billion) at current prices. But the potential offshore reserves could "dwarf" those supplies, the committee said.

"Onshore shale gas reserves in the U.K. could be quite considerable and will certainly help us increase our energy security though not, unfortunately, very dramatically," said Tim Yeo, the chairman of the committee and a member of the ruling Conservative Party.

"Offshore reserves may be much higher and, while more costly to recover, could potentially deliver self-sufficiency in gas for the U.K. at some point in the future," he added.

The use of shale gas, pioneered by the U.S. and Canada, is forecast to add some 40 percent to global recoverable natural gas resources, mostly in China and the U.S., but it is controversial for its impact on the environment.

Some U.S. states were forced to step up environmental standards after high levels of methane were found in tap water, while France recently put a similar project on hold.

A British report earlier this year called for a moratorium on test drilling already underway in Britain ahead of a full investigation.

The report from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research came as mining company Cuadrillo Resources found significant reserves near Blackpool in northern England.

Cuadrillo, which includes former BP Chief Executive John Browne on its board, has said its preliminary drilling confirmed and "possibly exceeded" its expectations.

The Tyndall report, commissioned by The Co-operative, an institutional investor in oil firms, was particularly concerned about a controversial technique called "fracking" — when the rock is fractured using chemicals to help release the trapped gas.

The Energy and Climate Change Committee said it found no evidence that the fracking process posed a direct risk to underground water aquifers as long as the drilling well was constructed properly.

"There has been a lot of hot air recently about the dangers of shale gas drilling, but our inquiry found no evidence to support the main concern — that U.K. water supplies would be put at risk," said Yeo. "There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of 'fracking' itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe."

The report also noted concerns about greenhouse gas emissions after YouTube videos from the United States apparently showed people setting fire to tap water, but it said that regulations in Britain "are stronger than in the States and should stop anything of the sort from happening here."