Campaigners are calling for a ban on the extraction of “shale gas” in the UK until potential environmental and human health risks have been properly assessed.
Exploitation of the natural gas in this country is expected to begin near Blackpool, Lancashire, later this month, but the Co-operative has raised concerns the process of extraction can contaminate local groundwater.
In the US, some residents in areas where drilling for shale gas is taking place can set fire to their drinking water and have become ill because of pollution by gas and chemicals, according to a new documentary Gasland.
The gas is found in shale formed from deposits of mud, silt, clay and organic matter. It is extracted by drilling down and then horizontally through the ground and then by “fracking”, a process of hydraulic fracturing of the shale using high pressure liquid containing chemicals to release the gas.
According to a report by the Tyndall Centre for the Co-operative, information about which chemicals are involved in the process is not publicly available but data on what is being stored at drilling sites in the US indicate the use of chemicals which are toxic or cause cancer. The Co-operative, which is running a campaign against “unconventional” fuels such as tar sands from Alberta, Canada, which are a much more polluting source of oil than conventional oil, has also raised concerns about whether the gas fits with a move to a low carbon economy.
While shale gas does not emit much more carbon in its production and use than conventional natural gas, and could improve the UK’s energy security, its exploitation worldwide could add to the greenhouse gases already being released – increasing the problem of climate change.
Paul Monaghan, head of social goals and sustainability at the Co-operative, also said there was no evidence in the US that the exploitation of shale gas was driving a switch away from dirtier coal for generating electricity. And he said that while it could help the UK’s energy security as North Sea gas runs low, it could also take investment away from developing renewable energy. “It’s like tar sands in your backyard, both in terms of local pollution and in terms of carbon emissions,” he said.
Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre, said: “In an energy-hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. “In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives. Consequently, if we are serious about avoiding dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.”
A Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesman said: “We support industry’s endeavours in pursuing such energy sources, provided that tapping of such resources proves to be economically, commercially and environmentally viable. All onshore oil and gas projects, including shale gas exploration and development, are subject to a series of checks, including local planning permission before they are able to move ahead with drilling activities”.
But the Commons’ Energy and Climate Change Committee has launched an inquiry into shale gas in a bid to answer the questions raised by the prospect of exploiting the fuel source in the UK. Tim Yeo, chairman of the parliamentary committee, said: “Shale gas is a very interesting new area, and could potentially make quite a significant contribution to available reserves in North America and even in the UK. But it does raise some new environmental and related questions.”