Britain must be at the heart of a “shale gas revolution”, David Cameron has said, which could bring down energy prices and help “re-industrialise” the economy.
Giving his public backing for plans to exploit the country’s onshore gas reserves – which is expected to be given the go-ahead by the Government very shortly – Mr Cameron said the new technology could transform our energy supplies.
But his stance was attacked by climate change scientists and energy experts who warned his dash-to-gas policy was “misleading and dangerous”.
Giving evidence to MPs Mr Cameron pointed to America where fracking for shale gas had allowed the country to become virtually self-sufficient in gas.
He said he wanted Britain to play a full part in the “revolution underway” and criticised environmentalists who were opposed to exploiting the technology.
“I think some in the green movement really want us to rule out gas and opt right now for nuclear plus renewables plus energy efficiency. Zip. That’s it,” he said.
“I think that would be a mistake. It maybe that this gas revolution is really quite transformative and there is going to be a lot more gas and the price won’t be as expensive as some people think.
“We should take part in fracking because this might be a revolution and if we ignored it completely we could be giving our economy much higher energy prices than would otherwise be necessary.”
Drilling for the fuel, which is extracted by the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” the shale rock in which it is contained, has been suspended for 18 months since the fracking operations of the mining company Cuadrilla Resources, near Blackpool, caused a series of earth tremors.
But an independent panel of scientists has said it could proceed with a strict safety regime, and in his Autumn Statement last week the Chancellor George Osborne signalled that fracking would soon be back with his announcement of a special new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil. It is expected that formal permission for Cuadrilla to recommence operations will be given this week.
Professor Kevin Anderson, of the Tyndall Centre at the University of Manchester, told another cross-party committee of MPs that the development of British shale gas will prevent Britain meeting its international commitments on curbing global warming.
“If we are serious about climate change, if we quantify it in relation to our international commitments, we can be absolutely categorical that shale gas cannot be a transition fuel,” he said.
Professor Paul Stevens, a recent winner of the prestigious OPEC award for outstanding oil and energy research, condemned Mr Osborne’s autumn statement for implying that gas would be cheaper in the future and that the price decline would be the result of tapping Britain’s shale gas resources.
He argued that the gas price could well increase significantly, while any decrease “will certainly not be the result of any shale gas revolution in UK or Europe”.
Furthermore, Professor Stevens slammed Mr Osborne for failing to acknowledge - or show an interest in resolving - the huge uncertainty over how much shale gas Britain will actually be able to extract.
“Osborne’s view of the future of energy is misleading and dangerous. It is misleading because it ignores the very real barriers to shale gas development in the UK and Europe more generally,” said Professor Stevens, who has previously worked at the Universities of Dundee, Surrey and Beirut and is now at the influential Chatham House think tank.
“His view of the future is also highly dangerous if there is concern over climate change as indeed there should be,” adds Professor Stevens, referring to the fact that the increased use of shale gas would largely be at the expense of low-carbon technologies such as wind, solar and nuclear power.
Professor Stevens said that the ideological clash between the pro-gas chancellor and Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary who favours low-carbon technology, has created a high level of indecision over the role of gas which “will add to the very long list of other barriers to shale gas development in the UK”.
These barriers, such as Britain’s high population density, general opposition to local developments, the government’s ownership of all mineral rights, and the high clay content of the shale, mean that the fracking revolution in the US which has sent gas prices tumbling, was not applicable to this country.
“The chief executive of ExxonMobil stated in March 2012 that the technology, so successfully used in the USA, was simply not applicable in Europe and that more research was needed. The problem is that this sort of fundamental scientific research needs to be funded by the government – as it was in the USA. Yet there appears to be no appetite in the British government for any such funding and the European Commission has ruled out any such funding,” said Professor Stevens.
Professor Stevens conceded that the price of gas might decrease in the future, but said that, contrary to Mr Osborne’s implication, a price falls “will certainly not be the result of any shale gas revolution in the UK or Europe in the next five to ten years”.