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U.K. Fast Tracks Fracking

Shale Gas: Government wrestles some decision-making powers back from local politicians

by Alex Scott
August 20, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 33

Ineos cracker.
Credit: Associated Press
Ineos’s Grangemouth cracker could benefit from new fracking rules.

The U.K. government has taken steps to accelerate large-scale production of onshore shale gas using hydraulic fracturing techniques known as fracking.

Effective immediately, the U.K. government will step in to approve or reject drilling wells for fracking if locally elected politicians take longer than the 16-week statutory time frame. The move follows a recent case in which a local government delayed and then rejected applications to drill eight wells at two sites.

Additionally, the U.K. government has awarded firms with oil and gas exploration licenses for 27 blocks of land, each covering an area of about 40 sq miles. The winners of these licenses still have to gain local planning consent to drill commercial wells. The U.K. government plans to offer licenses for a further 132 blocks of land by year-end.

While France and Ireland ban fracking for environmental reasons, the U.K. government is a strong proponent. “It’s important we press on and get shale moving,” says U.K. Energy Minister Nick Bourne. Investment in shale could surpass $50 billion and support 64,000 jobs, he says.

Petrochemical firm Ineos, which says it has been awarded three of the new exploration licenses covering an area of approximately 100 sq miles, has welcomed the government’s new initiatives. It estimates that it could start producing gas in commercial quantities by 2020.

“Shale gas is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the U.K. cannot afford to miss,” says Gary Haywood, CEO for Ineos Shale. “North Sea oil created wealth in the U.K., and shale gas can do the same,” he says.

Ineos badly needs more ethane, which can be derived from fracked gas, to run its petrochemical cracker at Grangemouth, Scotland. It is operating below capacity because North Sea gas supplies are dwindling.

But Ineos and other companies planning to frack for oil and gas under U.K. soil face vocal public opposition. The U.K. government’s move to accelerate fracking is “an affront to local democracy,” says Daisy Sands, Greenpeace’s head of campaigns. Greenpeace and many local resident groups across the U.K. are opposed to fracking because of its potential impact on climate change and groundwater pollution.



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