Shale gas fracking gets approval from government
Shale gas drilling rig
The exploration of shale gas has been backed by the government nearly a year after the drilling method triggered two earthquakes near Blackpool.
An expert report commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said shale gas fracking, a process where pressurised water and chemicals are pumped underground to open shale rocks and release trapped gas, was safe to resume with tighter rules on seismic monitoring and drilling surveys.
"The risk of seismic activity associated with hydraulic fracking operations is small and the probability of damage is extremely small - we suggest fracking can continue under our recommendations," one of the report's authors, the British Geological Society's Brian Baptie, said.
The energy ministry is inviting public comment on the report's findings over the next six weeks, after which it will issue its final ruling on the future of UK shale gas exploration.
The experts published their findings after reviewing a series of post-earthquake studies published by Cuadrilla Resources, a UK firm which was forced to halt its shale gas operations near Blackpool in northwest England after fracking triggered small earthquakes in April and May last year.
They also recommended the use of a "traffic light" control system, where operations are suspended if a red light indicates seismic activity at a threshold of 0.5 or above, well below a level which could cause structural damage on the surface.
The tremors measured near Blackpool last year reached magnitudes of 2.3 and 1.5.
No damage was caused, but after the second tremor was linked to fracking, operation of the Cuadrilla exploration well was halted.
While the report agreed with Cuadrilla's investigations as a whole, it said there was not enough data to confirm the company's claim that it was unlikely similar earthquakes would reoccur.
"We are pleased that the experts have come to a clear conclusion that it is safe to allow us to resume hydraulic fracturing, following the procedures outlined in the review," said Cuadrilla chief executive Mark Miller.
"Many of today's recommendations were contained in the original expert studies we published in November last year, and our supplementary information sent to DECC in January. We have already started to implement a number of them in the pursuit of best practice."
In the U.S. the exploration of shale gas has pushed gas prices to 10-year lows and companies such as Cheniere Energy are gearing up to export the excess fuel.
Activists on both sides of the Atlantic have lobbied politicians to ban fracking on environmental concerns, including the dangers of pollution of ground water and leakage of gas into the atmosphere.
France, which has some of Europe's largest shale gas reserves, last year banned the use of fracking on worries about environmental damage.
In the UK, Cuadrilla has said its site near Blackpool had 200 trillion cubic feet of gas in place - enough to cover UK demand for generations, although experts have cast doubt on the claims.
"The recommendations that any shale gas operations should be more closely monitored are welcome," said Dr Tim Fox, head of Energy and Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
"UK and European environmental regulations are already some of the most stringent in the world; and these proposed precautions are a good example of how to help mitigate the risk of any damage caused by seismic activity as a result of shale gas activity.
"The control regime whereby activity is stopped as soon as seismic activity levels rise above 0.5 on the richter scale is particularly welcome."
However environmental group Friends of the Earth remains strongly opposed to fracking for shale gas.
"We don't need earth tremor-causing fracking to meet our power needs - we need a seismic shift in energy policy," said executive director Andy Atkins.
A DECC spokesman said: "No decision has been taken on whether to allow fracking to resume at Cuadrilla's sites in Lancashire."
"We are grateful to the authors of the report and have launched a call for evidence to give people a chance to express their views on the report."
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