Britain's energy needs overcome fracking fears

Demonstrators, including one wearing a mask of British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (L) pose placards in protest against hydraulic fracturing for shale gas outside parliament in London on Dec. 1, 2012.

The British government has given the go-ahead for a  company to resume test drilling for shale gas using the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The same company stopped drilling last year after it apparently triggered two small earthquakes.

But it seems the economic benefits of fracking have overcome the environmental concerns. Britain’s embattled finance chief George Osborne told Parliament that Britain should imitate the U.S. energy revolution and get fracking.

“We don’t want British businesses and families to be left behind as gas prices tumble on the other side of the Atlantic,” said Osborne.

Britain’s supplies of natural gas from the North Sea are running down. The U.K. currently imports most of what it needs and in 20 years, it’ll probably have to import all of it. Energy adviser Dan Lewis says the U.K. faces a simple choice over its gas.

“Do we want to buy it in from abroad at a premium?” he asks. “Or do we want to develop our own, get some tax revenues, some jobs. And help some of the parts of the country that really could do with a boost?”

Lewis shrugs off the two earthquakes triggered in Britain by fracking.

“They were so small that no one could actually feel them," he says. “Not a single tea cup was broken.”

But anti-fracking protesters also point to cases of water pollution in the United States. And Helen Rimmer of Friends of the Earth argues that shale is a dangerous distraction.

"We need to be reducing our reliance on gas and fossil fuels, and developing our clean, renewable energy resources ," she says. "And that would not only cut carbon emissions, but could create thousands of new jobs across the U.K.”

Whatever the evironmental hazards and the economic benefits of fracking, in Britain, they will likely pale in comparison with those in the United States. Recoverable shale gas reserves in the U.S. are estimated to be 40 times the size of Britain’s.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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