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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Public Engagement in the Shale Gas Debate - A note to the Prime Minister

More than 60% of British land might be subject to shale gas licensing according to today's Guardian.

Hence, there is a sizeable population of the UK who would and should be concerned about the implications that shale gas exploitation may have for them.

The main issues are all concerned with the environment and its protection, either for its own sake or for our own sake. They can be categorised as:
  • Global (i.e., the effect of burning fossil fuels on the climate).
  • Regional (e.g., earth tremors).
  • Local (e.g., noise, transport inconvenience, water pollution, water availability, air pollution, social unrest, cost of housing).

There would also be benefits from shale gas at all of these levels, but often the debate centres around the threats rather than the benefits, which is only natural because most people prefer a ‘precautionary principle’ approach to assessing unfamiliar opportunities.

Unfortunately, sources of information are limited in availability, relevance, quality and trustworthiness. This results in opinions being formed on hearsay and based on anecdote, followed by a polarisation of views and the almost immediate inability of people with different views to debate the merits of shale gas properly.

For example, almost all of the ‘solid facts’ that are offered to me about the water pollution caused in the USA by shale gas exploitation on investigation turn out either not to be true or to be irrelevant to Europe. The much vaunted flaming water in the film Gas-Land turned out to be gas that existed in the aquifer long before shale fracking was ever carried out in the USA, and what was worse, its makers knew that when they mispresented it as being caused by fracking. How are we, therefore, to judge these disparate and sometimes contradictory pieces of information? One standard answer is to ask an expert – but which one?

Among the experts; the industry, environmental campaigners, politicians, lobbying groups such as Greenpeace, journalists and even scientists, all have their own agenda. They are driven by different desires and have their own natural biases. But what if you are not in any of these groups? What if you are a ‘normal’ person who just wants sufficient reliable evidence to make up your mind? How can you do that? You can pick an expert, but then you know what they are going to say before they tell you. One is forced into an unbalanced position without wanting to.

There are several blogs including this one and Frack-land that seek to provide balanced comment supported by scientific evidence, but frankly it is not enough. We desperately need information.
  • It is clear that we cannot know whether there is sufficient economically feasible gas under the UK until we drill and frack many more wells than we have (at least 10 and probably 20).
  • It is clear that we cannot know what the environmental risks are associated with drilling and fracking those wells until a comprehensive study is carried out on the first 10 to 20 wells in the UK.
In my view we should not freeze in the on-coming head-lights of shale gas. We should not dash for that gas either. We should walk into the gradual development of shale gas carefully, making high quality, relevant and useful measurements as we go, and making all results public.

In the UK (and elsewhere in Europe) we need:
  • Reliable, relevant scientific data on all aspects of shale gas and coal bed methane (CBM) production.
  • An independent body of sensible people to oversee shale gas development as well as to commission and analyse such studies.
  • A database of all the scientific data, analysis and reports that is fully accessible to the general public (which is something that I have already asked the Prime Minister to provide).

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