February 9, 2016

February 08, 2016

Increased Fracking on the Horizon in UK Gas Sector?

The United Kingdom has seen significant steps forward on the shale gas exploitation front.  In light of recent discoveries of substantial reserves in the north-west of England, the ongoing debate on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has once again come to the fore.  With recent studies from the British Geological Survey estimating that the capacity of the yet-untapped reserves of shale gas could climb to 170 trillion cubic feet (tcf), this is a significant discovery for the United Kingdom and could have important ramifications for the country’s energy supply and policy for many years to come.  The sheer size of these reserves is put sharply into context when viewed alongside the remaining gas reserves in the UK North Sea, judged to be as little as 7 tcf.

The UK’s decision to lift a temporary moratorium on fracking in May 2013, which had been in place since the previous year after shale gas exploration resulted in two minor earthquakes, now paves the way for a flurry of preliminary activity.  Some commentators predict that full-scale exploration will get underway in 2015.

Comments from the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, that the government would “make the tax and planning changes which will put Britain at the forefront of exploiting shale gas,” suggest that fracking in this sector could become more widespread, as the government relaxes restrictions over the practice.  Supporters have pointed to increased job creation, substantial tax revenues, and reduced reliance on imported energy.  However, critics have been quick to highlight the environmental concerns linked to fracking, such as water contamination and seismic risk.

Everything must be read in light of a governmental Energy and Climate Change Committee inquiry that concluded in April 2013 that any firm determination on the end-result for consumer energy prices based on these gas discoveries is still premature.  Therefore, much work remains to be done and substantial political wrangling will likely follow, before a clear path appears for the UK’s future direction on revitalizing its domestic gas industry.

© 2016 McDermott Will & Emery

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