Late on Tuesday afternoon, and within minutes of each other, two separate hearings in the Palace of Westminster examined the prospects for shale gas in the UK.
In the upper house, the Economic Affairs Committee was taking evidence from Chris Wright, the straight-talking boss of an American shale gas company. Wright, a boyish forty-something, gave their lordships a crash course in shale gas development, explaining the approach companies like his took in order to get gas out of the ground. Because every shale well is different, he said, shale companies have to experiment a bit, trying out different fracking recipes and techniques until they find one that works for them. There is no straightforward way of doing this – it is simply trial and error until they chance on a way forward. Fracking for shale gas is an art rather than a science.
Wright was very optimistic about the drill core data from the UK, believing that our shales could be at least as productive as some of those he had worked on back in America. But would he therefore be getting involved in the nascent UK shale gas industry? Not a chance. Having to spend a year trying to get permission from the Environment Agency every time he wanted to try a slightly different fracking recipe would, he said, be the death of him.
This was a stark message, and one that you might think would alarm the government – or at the least those parts of it that are behind the idea of developing the vast shale deposits under northern England. However, shortly after Wright had laid these facts bare, David Cameron, in one of his regular appearances before the Commons Liaison Committee, was asked for his views on shale. The Prime Minister’s backing for unconventional gas is well known, and earlier in the hearing he had described the need to keep the lights on as the number one priority of his energy policy. You might therefore have assumed that he would be right on top of the question of whether the shale gas regulatory regime was fit for purpose. But you would have been mistaken. This is what he had to say:
‘We have a very tough set of environmental permissions and permits…I don’t think we need to add to that. I think what we should do is allow this industry develop within the very clear framework of environmental rules and regulations and planning that has to take place now…we’ve got the rules in place, now let this industry have a chance to develop.’
Oh dear. I think the PM may need to take another look at this.