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Shale gas has considerable potential. But the Government must be sure that environmental risks are addressed

Opponents point to possible links to earth tremors, and water and air pollution

2014 is all set to be the year when fracking really gets going in the UK. Not in terms of any meaningful shale gas production; that will not happen until the next decade, if at all. Rather, with regards to preparing the ground with the issuing of dozens of new exploration licences and – as The Independent reports today – with a sharp increase in the compensation available to local communities.

The Government – and George Osborne in particular – is convinced that shale gas has the potential to be the saviour of Britain’s beleaguered energy industry, where both prices and the risk of blackouts are on the rise. Hydraulic fracturing – which releases natural gas by blasting a mixture of sand, water and chemicals into the rock at high speed – has the potential to herald an era of cheap and plentiful energy, reducing our reliance on, often volatile, foreign regimes and creating thousands of jobs and billions of pounds of tax revenue in the process.

Mr Osborne’s belief that a shale gas boom in Britain will mean lower prices – as has been the case in the US – has been largely debunked. While the American gas market is essentially isolated, the UK has a network of pipes connecting it to Europe, so any boost to production will be spread across the Continent, diluting the effect on prices.

Fracking is also contentious on environmental grounds. Opponents point to possible links to earth tremors, and water and air pollution. And the process most certainly uses huge quantities of water. As such, it has generated considerable concern in local communities, most notably in the West Sussex village of Balcombe where protesters severely disrupted preparatory work on a potential fracking site last summer.

There are causes for concern, here. Not because of earth tremors; what disturbances there are, are akin to a lorry passing near by. But it is undeniable that the methane that escapes during shale gas production represents a hugely damaging greenhouse gas if not captured at source.  Meanwhile, evidence from the US about polluting the local water table is inconclusive and the risk is one that cannot be taken too seriously.

And yet the prospect of a shale gas boom is too bright to overlook. Yes, we must all ultimately wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Equally, however, we cannot satisfy our energy needs through renewable power alone – at least, not for some time yet – and shale gas is far cleaner than coal, the main alternative. Add in the direct economic benefits and the increased security, and shale gas becomes an opportunity that has too much potential not to be explored. That said, fracking must be closely supervised and governed by strong regulations. An independent report on every aspect of the process, and its effects, would be a good start.

This summer, the Coalition will make as much as 40 per cent of Britain available for oil and gas exploration. Well under half of that area is expected to generate any interest, but there will still be licences covering thousands of square kilometres. The Government is right to increase the compensation offered to local communities for the disruption any production would cause. It also needs to ensure that their quality of life is not spoiled.