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Britain and the F Word

5 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Over the past few years, no environmental issue besides climate change has managed to capture the world’s attention as much as fracking. That’s the industrial process used by energy companies to break open underground shale-rock layers with pressurized water and chemicals, accessing otherwise trapped deposits of natural gas and oil. Fracking has transformed the energy industry: in the U.S. alone, natural gas production from shale deposits hit 230 billion cu m in 2012, nearly double 2010’s total, and the price of natural gas has fallen by over 80% since 2008.

But the sudden boom in fracking has also created an environmental backlash, because of fears about water contamination and pollution from fracked wells. I’ve witnessed it myself in the U.S. in town halls and public hearings where shale gas is produced. When U.S. President Barack Obama recently visited upstate New York — ground zero of the fracking war — he was greeted by protesters from both sides of the issue. This is a debate with no middle ground.

(MORE: The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside)

Now that debate has arrived in Britain. Protesters from around the U.K. recently descended on the leafy West Sussex village of Balcombe, where energy company Cuadrilla has been trying to use fracking to produce oil. Trying is the word — the company suspended operations at a drilling site in northern England from June 2011 to April 2012 because of concerns that fracking might have triggered minor earthquakes, and it stopped drilling in Balcombe in mid-August because of protests. “Fracking is not the answer — it’s going to leave a trail of broken communities, ruined countryside and contaminated water,” Kara Moses, spokesperson for the activist group No Dash for Gas, told TIME at the Balcombe protests on Aug. 16.

But there’s a reason why companies like Cuadrilla have been willing to brave the wrath of green activists. Britain has a lot of shale gas — recent estimates suggest there are about 36.8 billion cu m of shale gas in northwest England alone, enough to supply the country for decades even if just a fraction could be extracted. And Prime Minister David Cameron is firmly behind fracking. “If we don’t back this technology, we will miss a massive opportunity to help families with their bills and make our country more competitive,” Cameron wrote in a recent column in the Sunday Telegraph.

(MORE: Deep Disposal Wells from Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Earthquakes)

The Prime Minister would like nothing more than to see Britain follow the U.S. example on fracking, where environmentalists have had little luck in slowing the pace of new drilling. But Cameron is not likely to get his wish. The green lobby is more powerful in the U.K. than it is in the U.S., where one party — that would be the Republicans — is against anything to do with climate change and for anything that can be drilled. Contrast that with Britain, where the Conservative Cameron promised to build the “greenest government ever” when he took office in 2010. More important, British environmentalists have had time to watch the spread of fracking in the U.S. — where greens were initially blindsided by the rapid pace of new drilling — and prepare their defense. They won’t give up without a fight.

There are more fundamental reasons why Britain is never likely to enjoy its version of America’s shale bonanza. Fracking can literally take place in people’s backyards — and Britain, which has one of the densest populations in the world at 256 people per sq km, is a country with a lot of very small backyards. Much more so than in the comparatively sparse U.S. (53 people per sq km), fracking in Britain on a large scale would be far more disruptive to far more people. Then there is the issue of property rights — or the lack of them. In the U.S., landowners usually also control the subsurface-mineral rights — so when a drilling company wants to frack on private land, the owner can lease the territory and earn royalties on every cubic foot of natural gas that is produced. That’s not the case in the U.K., where state approval is required to exploit each new resource, giving landowners less incentive to welcome development and more red tape if they do.

Even if fracking does go forward in Britain, those barriers will make extraction much more costly than it is in the U.S., meaning the U.K. would be unlikely to enjoy a major reduction in the price of natural gas. U.K. environmentalists want to stop fracking because they think it’s an environmental catastrophe, but the real reason it won’t go ahead is much more quotidian: it’s just not worth the bother.

VIDEO: Flaming Faucets: When Fracking Goes Wrong

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