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UK Panel Rejects Shale Gas Moratorium

A British parliamentary report issued Monday said that the UK should not pursue a moratorium on shale gas exploration, even while it acknowledged that the country’s supply was “unlikely to be a ‘game changer’” as it has been in the United States. The report was good news for Cuadrilla Resources, which has an interest in reserves found near Blackpool in northern England.

(Related: “The Great Shale Gas Rush“)

As this recent post points out, Great Britain has made a huge shift away from coal toward natural gas in the last several years. In 2009, according to the British government, natural gas accounted for 47 percent of its energy supply; this share has grown more than 85 percent since 1990.

By one estimate in the newly released report, the UK’s shale gas reserves could be enough to replace its liquefied natural gas imports for 15 years.

Countries around the world are enmeshed in debate over the merits and risks of prospecting for shale gas. While natural gas is cleaner than coal, the process of extracting it from shale via hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has raised safety concerns, particularly over its effect on water supply. (You’ll find an amusing, if slightly odd, video that recaps – and raps – the issues here.)

A Duke University study released earlier this month linked shale gas drilling to elevated levels of methane in tap water in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The health effects of ingesting tap water with a high concentration of methane are unknown, but at the same time, no one wants flammable tap water.

The fracking controversy has led to moratoria on shale gas exploration at sites in the United States, France and South Africa. Poland, on the other hand, has signaled its willingness to forge ahead in developing its considerable shale gas reserves, which could last the country some 300 years; so have China, India and Australia.

The UK parliamentary panel’s report said it found no evidence that shale gas exploration poses any risk to water aquifers “provided that the well-casing is intact before the process commences.” It said the nation’s environment agency “must ensure that they have the resources necessary to detect these chemicals in water supplies should an incident lead to potential contamination of water resources.”

The panel also pointed out reasons for caution in shale gas exploration that go beyond water contamination: the fracking process generates vast amounts of waste water, and requires vast amounts of water to begin with.

“In regions already experiencing water stress—the number of which might increase as a result of climate change—the water required by hydraulic fracturing could exacerbate the situation,” the report said.