FRACKING may be morally acceptable in the UK if the process does not “distract or delay” efforts to expand low-carbon renewable energy or to meet the carbon-reduction targets agreed in Paris (News, 18 December 2015), a Church of England working group has concluded in a briefing paper.
“If such a possible limited role for exploiting shale gas in the UK is accepted,” it states, “the next question is whether the impact of fracking, as the process whereby shale is exploited, on communities, the landscape, and the environment, can be minimised satisfactorily.”
The briefing, Shale Gas and Fracking, published on Tuesday, was prepared by the Mission and Public Affairs Council and the Environment Working Group of the C of E, in November. It sets out to identify the possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — on communities and the environment, and suggests how dioceses can respond to proposals for local shale-gas development with “greater understanding and trust”.
The technique — which involves pumping chemical liquid into rocks deep underground to force the release of shale oil and gas — has been fiercely criticised.
In May, an application for fracking tests was approved by county councillors in the North Yorkshire village of Kirby Misperton, in Ryedale — the first approval in five years. A former Bishop of Maidstone, the Rt Revd Graham Cray, who has retired to the village, condemned the decision, saying that it would curb tourism in the area, risk public health, and ultimately add to climate change (News, 16 May).
On Tuesday, the campaign group Frack Free Ryedale criticised a video released by UK Onshore Oil and Gas — showing an artist’s impression of six drilling pads in a semi-rural landscape — as misleading. Earlier this month, hundreds of people gathered in Sherwood Forest, in Nottinghamshire, to protest against plans by the chemicals manufacturer INEOS to survey the ancient woodlands.
But supporters — including the Government and the independent Task Force on Shale Gas — have said that fracking could generate electricity at half the carbon-dioxide emissions of coal, as well as create thousands of jobs. In September, the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, approved planning appeals for two exploratory sites in Lancashire.
In the United States, fracking has been used to bolster the energy industry and bring down gas prices, but the process continues to raise environmental concerns, since it requires large quantities of water to be transported to the site.
The C of E briefing states that, while “various claims” have been made about the economic impact of the development of shale-gas reserves in the UK, “there are many uncertainties around all these predictions. On current levels of activity, and with the uncertainties introduced by leaving the European Union, volatile oil prices, and rapid changes in energy-generation technologies, the place of fracking within a comprehensive energy policy is far from conclusive.”
The briefing points to the Lambeth Declaration on Climate Change, signed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the climate-change policy drawn up by the Ethical Investment Advisory Group, and adopted by the Church Commissioners and Pensions Board in May 2015.
“If developing the techniques of fracking provides an alibi for relaxing efforts to reduce carbon consumption, it is obviously unhelpful,” the briefing states. “But the Government’s commitment to [the Paris Agreement on climate change] means that overall carbon consumption in the UK must be constrained, whatever its source.
“And, as shale gas is a cleaner option than some alternatives, the case can be made that, as transition to a low-carbon economy is a gradual process, shale gas has an important place in such a policy.”
The paper also weighs up issues surrounding affordable and secure energy, water use, public health, and conflicts in the industry. “Having concluded that shale gas may be a useful component in transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we are persuaded that a robust planning and regulatory regime could be constructed,” it concludes.
“However, these are aspects that will need constant vigilance. Ongoing research and monitoring of impacts on health and environment will be needed.”