LONDON (ICIS)--The UK needs to use its shale gas reserves in order to increase security of supply, help transition to a greener economy and increase the workforce in the manufacturing sector, according to a member of parliament (MP) from the opposition Labour party.
Angela Smith’s stance on shale gas is at odds with that of her party, as Labour promised in the last general election held in June 2017 to ban fracking altogether as the practice has been strongly opposed by residents near the potential reserves, green groups and public opinion at large.
Smith, however, thinks the UK has already got the right regulatory environment to exploit the country’s shale gas reserves in a safe manner, some of which are beneath her own constituency, Penistone and Stocksbridge in South Yorkshire in the north of England,
She added that after careful study of all views, she is convinced fears over pollution from chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are unfounded.
However, despite companies’ attempts to exploit shale gas, the industry has not taken off yet and shale-gas rich Scotland, where chemical major INEOS had placed hopes to lead fracking, extended a ban on the practice in October.
“The regulatory framework [for England] was only completed three years ago. Why haven’t we seen operations established yet? England is a very small country and densely populated. The industry has tried very carefully and really wants to develop this sector in a context of public acceptance, if at all possible,” said Smith.
The Labour MP added she was not surprised public acceptance is taking time, adding that the campaigns against shale gas from green groups have been effective in convincing public opinion fracking “is actually dangerous” and pollutes the water supply, for instance.
“I don’t think those fears are justified at all. I spent a number of years attending meetings, listening to both sides of the debate, including the Environmental Agency [EA], Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive [HSE], and I am absolutely convinced that with the right regulatory framework there is no reason to fear [fracking],” she said.
In her view, the UK’s current regulatory environment would provide the guarantees that all phases of the fracking process – including the management of chemicals and their disposal – are safe.
“I understand the largest risk is about the management of chemicals on site, at ground levels. I directly questioned the EA on this, in the [Parliament’s] select committee, and they were quite clear: this point is an important part of the permitting process.”
UK governments since 2010 have been keen to encourage shale gas extraction. So much so that in 2015 a regulation was passed which allowed the central government to override a local council’s decision to ban fracking.
The clause has already been used once, in 2016, to grant the company Cuadrilla licence to frack for gas in Lancashire, in the north of England.
“It is a shame we ever got to that point. In an ideal world one would hope there would be a recognition that the policy framework is complete and that the focus now has to be on the planning process – every single application should be considered on its merits,” said the MP.
“I try to be balanced and I try to have an open mind on this. I think the regulatory framework is in place and is robust. This does not mean that all apps should be approved, however: It will be down to whether each application meets the terms.”
Thus, the MP demanded a sharp focus on the planning of each application, which would involve looking at the trucks travelling to and from the site, for instance.
Some shale gas operations in the US, where the industry has been booming since 2010, have trucks working around the clock. However, the vast US is not England, and continuous truck operations would have an effect on local residents.
“This is why I would never give a blank cheque to the industry. It’s up to the industry to prove with every application that the usual planning considerations can be sufficiently met. Planning guidance in this country dictates what’s acceptable in terms of noise, pollution levels, lights and every other aspect in the planning process,” said Smith, pictured right.
She is also convinced that natural gas could play a greener role in the UK’s energy mix. Although a fossil fuel, natural gas’ carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are much lower than those of coal or crude oil.
Moreover, by extracting shale gas domestically the UK could stop relying on liquefied natural gases (LNG) imports as the shipping of the material would also increase CO2 emissions, said Smith.
INEOS has been importing US ethane to its petrochemical operations in the UK since September 2016.
“[Fracking in the UK] could potentially provide jobs and viable feedstocks for an industry [petrochemicals] which doesn’t want to focus too much on researching and developing technologies that actually help achieve the greener future we all want,” conceded Smith.
“All round I feel very strongly about this. I am not a supporter of shale gas as such, but someone who sees the role for this particular industry in terms of meeting those objectives.”
As part of a wide-ranging interview, Smith also spoke to ICIS about the UK’s departure from the EU and its potential effect on the chemical industry.
She is convinced that the UK chemical industry would need to remain within the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) after Brexit in order to keep regulatory convergence intact, bur recognised the future UK-EU trade relationship post-Brexit was the biggest “political dilemma” her country had faced in decades.
To read the first part of the interview, click here.
Pictured above: An anti-frucking protest in York, near Smith's constituency, in October
Source: Andrew McCaren/LNP/REX/Shutterstock
Angela Smith's picture source: Angelasmith-mp.org.uk
Interview article by Jonathan Lopez