This week, the UK Government announced a new round of licensing for onshore oil and gas exploration. Companies will make bids for a licence to drill for oil or gas in designated areas, or ‘blocks’. This kind of auction is nothing new, and would typically pass off without comment in the mainstream press. But since the last auction in 2008, the possibility of fracking has arrived on UK shores. Thus, the auction looked like an exciting new development in the shale-gas wars.
To environmental and anti-fracking campaigners, the auction of licences looks like an announcement that every square inch of land under the designated blocks will be bulldozed and turned into a shale gas-drilling pad. ‘The fourteenth licensing round covers all of our 10 biggest cities, 10 of our 13 national parks, 47 per cent of our aquifers, and 77 per cent of current cabinet ministers’ constituencies’, complained Greenpeace. To make its point, Greenpeace set up an SMS service and a website, which allow users to find out if their postcode falls under one of the blocks, putting their home at risk from fracking. Entering the postcode of Parliament, however, returns the message ‘Your home is in one of the areas the government is considering for drilling and possible fracking’.
Needless to say, the government is not considering turning central London over to shale-gas developers, and it is extremely unlikely that any developer would consider buying a licence to drill in SW1. Even if licences were issued for exploration under Westminster, as with anywhere else, the licensees are not guaranteed that planning and other necessary consents and permits will be granted to them. But such fast and loose treatment of the facts about shale gas better suits green campaigners’ scaremongering objectives.
Fearful hyperbole characterises much comment on shale gas. A Guardian editorial whinged that, when it comes to ‘the dash for shale gas’, ‘Whitehall willingly gives a mile, only for the industry to take a light year’, before describing a ‘mood of frenzy’ for shale gas among Conservative MPs and the cabinet. But how do statements about a frenzied dashing for gas compare to reality?
It should be noted that there are not yet any commercial shale-gas wells in the UK, and there have been only a very small number of experimental wells drilled by companies in search of shale gas. Compared to the image of huge energy companies bullying their way through the corridors of power, and drilling their way through towns and villages throughout rural England, companies like Cuadrilla and iGas – the two companies most noted for their interest in shale gas – are tiny. Anti-shale activists were excited when French energy company Total announced its plans to invest in UK fracking operations, but it turned out that the investment might be as little as just £12million – not even enough cash to buy a wind farm, much less turn the entire county of Lincolnshire into a drilling site.