For a country experiencing the twilight of the energy boom powered by North Sea oil, fracking offers a tempting new opportunity to once again become an active player in the world’s energy markets. “We expect net North Sea gas production to fall from a peak of 108 billion cubic meters at the turn of the century to perhaps 19 billion cubic meters by 2030,” Davey told the Royal Society. The hope is that shale gas may also be an opportunity to regain some energy sovereignty during a period of perceived instability for the UK’s energy supplies—or, at least, that is how it’s being sold to the British public. But Britain’s own hydrocarbon revolution is not running quite as smoothly as its transatlantic neighbor’s. First, the size of the UK’s potential shale gas reserves remains unclear, with estimates ranging from the conservative figure of 822 trillion cubic feet (tcf) to an upper limit of 2281 tcf. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle, but at this stage it is uncertain how much could actually be extracted viably using the controversial hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technique. What is certain is that it will be a fraction of the US level.
The prospect of an emerging shale industry in the UK has also come up against significant public opposition. Unlike in the US, potential fracking sites in the UK are often very close to large urban areas, making local communities nervous about the prospects of water pollution, methane emissions and even minor earthquakes. All of these side effects have occurred on occasion as a result of the fracking process, which involves forcing water and a mixture of chemicals at high pressure down through the earth to dislodge rock and free up previously inaccessible gas deposits. Most notably, in 2011 two small earthquakes affecting the British seaside resort town of Blackpool were attributed to fracking in the area, leading to a nationwide moratorium on shale exploration until December last year.
Finally, there is the issue of bringing shale gas online. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Andrew Pendleton of environmental campaigning group Friends of the Earth notes that even if the UK’s shale gas deposits are as significant as some believe, it will take years for them to be extracted: “The issue the UK has is with energy prices and demand now. Shale gas is not the solution.” The British government acknowledges that “it would likely be the 2020s before we might feel any benefits [from shale gas] in full,” according to its energy minister. Pendleton’s comments reveal that worries over energy security are why the shale gas issue is so topical in the UK, and indeed in Europe as a whole. The UK and its European neighbors have been experiencing an energy price squeeze for several years as demand for energy, specifically liquefied natural gas (LNG), has risen. European importers now face increased competition for imports from emerging markets and established importers including Japan, which has significantly increased its LNG imports since the Fukushima nuclear incident in 2011. Shale gas, some analysts believe, offers the UK and its European neighbors an opportunity to diversify away from LNG imports, and specifically their reliance on LNG exporters such as Qatar, Norway and Russia—the latter of which has regularly used its prime position as a key energy exporter as a political and geostrategic tool.
For Dan Lewis, chief executive of Future Energy Strategies, shale gas should certainly be part of the energy supply solution in the UK at least. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Lewis asked whether Britain wants to be “a price maker or a price taker” before answering his own question: “Shale gas gives us the opportunity to return to being a potential energy exporter and will certainly change our current position, where we have to buy gas at the price set by exporters.” Where both Lewis and Pendleton agree is that the phraseology of the debate over the UK and Europe’s energy needs is wrong. Both men acknowledge that Europe’s energy challenge is one of price stability, rather than supply. While some observers have dramatically claimed that there could even be periodic electricity blackouts across Europe, the more likely scenario is a continued period of market instability and rising energy costs for consumers. The latter issue is becoming acute, especially in the UK: since 2006, the average UK household energy bill has more than doubled, to an average of around £1,350 a year.
And what of the alternatives? Pendleton is just one of several energy observers who believe shale gas is a red herring and that Europe’s real energy solution lies with renewable production techniques, not least wind and solar. And there is a precedent for such alternatives: last year, 23 percent of European power demand was met by electricity generated from renewable sources, compared with just 13 percent in 2002, and this growth is expected to continue. But the cost of this increase in sustainable energy production has hit governments and consumers hard: the renewable sector is heavily subsidized by the state, and some costs are also passed onto consumers. Speaking to the New York Times earlier this year, Susanne Hounsell, an analyst at the energy research firm IHS CERA in Paris, noted that direct charges for renewables add about 18 percent to German household electricity bills, with indirect costs putting on more. For Lewis, the benefits of shale over renewables are clear: “It is the first new energy sector in the UK which has not relied on government subsidies.” On the other hand, Andrew Pendleton of Friends of the Earth notes that if governments were clearer in their long-term support for renewables, then the sector would be seen as more stable and private investors would begin to significantly back renewable energy, taking the pressure of the taxpayer. In the UK, the delay in the government’s Energy Bill aimed at reforming the electricity market has arguably left investors unclear on the state of the sector.
As we head towards another European winter, energy prices will once again return to the fore. US shale gas has already had a huge impact by bringing down domestic energy prices, as well as affecting the global markets. Britain’s own shale gas revolution is still far from a sure bet, but what is clear is that policymakers in the UK and across Europe remain squeezed between the triple challenge of supply, cost and cleanliness. There is arguably still more that can be done on the demand side. But it is the future of Europe’s energy supplies that is perplexing policymakers and analysts—and where and how shale fits into this remains to be seen.