The future role of gas in the UK is the subject of significant debate. There is controversy about how much gas we could use and for how long, and whether this will be compatible with statutory climate change targets. As North Sea supplies decline, there are also starkly differing views about whether some of the gas we will need in future should come from domestic shale gas resources.
Despite the number of headlines about shale gas, there has been very little development activity so far. Fracking for shale gas has only been carried out at one site near Blackpool, where operations by Cuadrilla caused minor earthquakes in 2011. This means that it is almost impossible to determine whether significant UK shale gas production would make economic sense. The recent falls in oil and gas prices have added to this uncertainty, but are likely to make commercial viability more challenging.
During the recent 14th licensing round for onshore oil and gas, 159 areas were awarded licenses for development – 75% of these were for unconventional oil and gas extraction, which has sparked local debates in many of the affected areas.
Two planning applications submitted by Cuadrilla for exploration at sites in Lancashire were recently turned down by the local council on the grounds of noise and traffic. One of these was refused against the advice of council officers. An appeal by Cuadrillia is currently underway. Whether or not it goes in favour of the council or the developer, it raises broader questions about the role of local democracy and decision-making.
Last August the government announced the introduction of fast-track planning regulations designed to limit the length of local planning processes for unconventional oil and gas operations. Greg Clark, the secretary of state for communities and local government, also said he expects to have the final say over the Lancashire applications.
This intention to constrain local planning processes has understandably led to concerns about local democracy. It is not the first time national government has tried to intervene in local decision-making, especially when it comes to the development of new large-scale infrastructures or natural resources.
While national government may emphasise a particular course of action, like the development of shale gas, there is no guarantee that local decision-makers will simply agree. Furthermore, selective limits on local planning risk exacerbating public mistrust. A Sciencewise project on public engagement with shale gas and oil, commissioned by the government, revealed significant unease among participants about decision-making processes.
A waste of energy?
Given that large-scale changes to energy infrastructures are very likely to be required across the UK as the energy system decarbonises, this issue goes well beyond shale gas. Local opposition has also been significant for other energy developments such as wind farms, solar farms, gas storage sites and electricity transmission lines.
The government’s approach to different energy sources appears to be inconsistent – most notably between onshore wind and shale gas. In contrast with the approach for shale, local planners will determine whether new onshore wind projects go ahead or not. Ministers have defended this situation on the grounds that a lot of wind farms are already being deployed, while shale gas is at a very early stage.
Although the government’s regular energy opinion poll no longer asks specific questions about onshore wind, other polls suggest it still has significant public support – as well as being the cheapest low carbon electricity generation technology.
The focus on shale and wind could also be a missed opportunity for a broader conversation about the UK’s sustainable energy transition. This conversation should not be restricted to which technologies or resources should be used, and what they might cost. Previous research from the UK Energy Research Centre suggests that people are also interested in how energy systems can reflect values such as fairness, sustainability and efficiency. A focus on individual sources like shale gas in isolation leaves little space for this broader conversation to be held.