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The British government has decided to lift the restrictions on extracting gas from shale rocks using the method of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has announced.
Drilling exploratory wells was banned in May 2011 but the new decision means that a number of drilling projects that could produce billions of pounds worth of gas could be given the go-ahead, the BBC reported. The DECC agreed that fracking could resume in the UK but said that stricter controls over its possible effect on seismic activity will be implemented. As part of the tightened controls, the department has also commissioned research on the effect that shale gas development might have on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
Ed Davey, the UK's energy and climate change secretary, commented that shale gas offers great opportunities for Britain as it might ensure the country's energy security and make it less dependent on imported gas as the UK transitions to a low carbon economy. Davey explained that the decision to allow fracking was preceded by extensive analysis of data from the latest scientific studies and is based on evidence.
However, as fracking is still in its very early stages in Britain, the department wants to stress that the process has to be carried out safely. In order to ensure that it is done properly, the DECC intends to introduce more stringent regulation of fracking and to launch a new Office of Unconventional Gas and Oil under the department, which will be in charge of regulation.
The new controls over fracking operations also include thorough research on seismic risks before drilling begins, a plan for addressing seismic risks that should be submitted to the department and extensive seismic monitoring that has to be conducted before, during and after fracking. In addition, a new traffic light system is being introduced to categorize the different extents of seismic activity and determine appropriate action.
The first project where fracking is likely to resume is at Anna's Road in Lancashire, where three fracking wells were closed after two minor tremors that raised concerns over the safety of the operation. Operator Cuadrilla Resources said that the quakes were probably triggered by fracking and a subsequent inspection revealed management failings in the company. According to Davey, those have been resolved but Cuadrilla will receive advice from external experts before it is allowed to develop any new sites.
Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, which in fact is the only company that has drilled exploratory wells in the UK so far, said that lifting the suspension on fracking is a major step for the country, as it can provide valuable resources. Cuadrilla estimates that Britain has about 200 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, or more than 70 times the current annual demand for gas, but geologists believe that figure is an overstatement. Independent evaluations of the amount of shale gas that can be extracted in the UK vary significantly, the BBC noted.