SHEFFIELD, England — Political leaders at Westminster are rolling out the red carpet for shale gas development, eager for the kind of domestic energy boom that has rocked the United States.
But to Julie Graham, the American shale revolution is a cautionary tale of high risks and questionable rewards — at least for communities in the path of drilling.
"The people that are going to get the jobs are the people that are fracking badly in the states," she said here at an October meeting of the fledgling Sheffield Against Fracking group. "We’re going to get them to come here and frack badly in England."
Graham is not alone in her concerns. Activists across the United Kingdom have mobilized against shale drilling, sharing stories of hydraulic fracturing gone wrong, hosting screenings of the American anti-fracking film "Gasland" and staging high-profile demonstrations, including fashion designer Vivienne Westwood’s headline-grabbing protest in a military tank outside the prime minister’s home.
Government leaders in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have signaled their opposition to shale drilling, establishing varying levels of bans and moratoriums. England, meanwhile, is moving full-speed ahead, opening vast swaths of oil and gas rights to industry and promising to intervene if local councils get in the way.
Sheffield is among the most recent "license blocks" that will be eligible for drilling applications, pending further review. Here in the industrial-turned-university city two hours north of London, the opposition is just beginning.
"The danger is that people see fracking as something that happens in the United States," said Graham, a Greenpeace activist and Sheffield resident who is leading the local group. "But they don’t actually realize that it’s on their doorstep."
A shaky start
Shale drilling has been knocking on England’s door for many years.
Though mostly untested, U.S. Energy Information Administration studies estimate up to 25 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in basins of northern England and Scotland, plus 600 billion cubic feet in southern England. Early exploration efforts, however, did not go as planned.
In the spring of 2011, two earthquakes, magnitude 2.3 and magnitude 1.5, rattled the Lancashire region northwest of Manchester. The quakes were linked to exploratory fracking wells in the Bowland gas basin. Shale drilling was suspended nationwide, and operator Cuadrilla Resources Ltd. was ordered to conduct a full technical analysis of the incident.
Cuadrilla delivered the analysis later that year, explaining how the injections into a fault zone had likely triggered the quakes and offering guidelines to avoid future seismic hazards.
The government followed with its own review, established new requirements to mitigate earthquake risks and in December 2012 announced that it would resume accepting drilling applications.
"Having carefully reviewed the evidence with the aid of independent experts … I have concluded that appropriate controls are available to mitigate the risks of undesirable seismic activity," Edward Davey, then secretary for climate and energy, told Parliament. "Those new controls will be required by my department for all future shale gas wells. On that basis, I am in principle prepared to consent to new fracking proposals for shale gas, where all other necessary permissions and consents are in place."
Still, the earthquakes seemed to do irreversible damage to the industry’s public relations in Britain. Talk of potential quakes still features prominently in the debate over shale drilling, with groups like Sheffield Against Fracking wondering if they’ll see an earthquake boom like the disposal-related uptick in Oklahoma.
When Cuadrilla submitted new applications for drilling in Lancashire earlier this year, the local council with oversight over land use denied permits, citing the potential for "unacceptable adverse impacts on the landscape."
Cuadrilla declined to be interviewed for this story but noted in an email that it is now focused on appealing the Lancashire decision.
Fracking on the horizon
All signs from the government point to an abundance of shale drilling to come.
Unlike the mix of private and public mineral ownership in the United States, the British government owns all of the oil and gas estate here, meaning it has full authority to decide which areas are open to development. Under the leadership of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the government has moved aggressively to open areas for consideration.
In August, the government offered 27 "blocks" to industry and subjected another 132 blocks for environmental assessment. Each block is roughly 10 square kilometers.
The process moves quickly. The 132 blocks are being analyzed under the Conservation of Habitat and Species Regulations and are expected to be narrowed to eligible licenses by the end of the year.
One of the most controversial aspects of the government’s push toward shale drilling has been its decision to include certain sensitive areas, known as "sites of special scientific interest," or SSSIs, in the blocks under consideration.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds railed at the news, accusing the government of reversing a previous pledge to avoid those areas.
"We simply don’t understand why SSSIs, some of the UK’s best and most sensitive wildlife sites and landscapes aren’t being offered full protection from fracking," RSPB Conservation Director Martin Harper said in a statement. "The Government still has a chance, before these fracking licences are finalised, to fulfill its promise to protect SSSIs — and the RSPB is urging them to do so."
The government bowed to the environmental pressure this month, announcing that fracking would not be allowed on the sensitive lands. Draft regulations, though, push for licensing of deep fracking beneath other protected areas, including national parks and groundwater areas.
Environmental groups, meanwhile, have raised concerns about climate change, potential groundwater contamination, air pollution, traffic and "countryside blight." Critics largely view the American shale boom as a loosely regulated Wild West and fear England will face similar impacts.
"The government’s acting in the most negligent manner," Emily Shirley, an environmental advocate with the Safety in Fossil Fuel Exploitation Alliance (SaFE Alliance), said in an interview. "They’re not even considering the precautionary principle, the uncertainties."
Proponents of shale development, though, say precisely the opposite is true. In fact, they argue, the British government may be better suited to oversee shale development because it has been able to learn from the American boom.
"A lot of what went wrong in America came about from not having the baseline evidence before it started," London-based K&L Gates lawyer Sebastian Charles said in an interview.
Britain, meanwhile, has had time to consider the potential impacts and craft complex national regulations, which include baseline groundwater testing. Industry representatives have insisted that the rules are the "gold standard," and regulators have touted them as the "world’s toughest."
Plus, Charles said, the United Kingdom already has diverse regulatory experience and an extensive natural gas grid from North Sea drilling that will help it capitalize on a shale gas production.
The United Kingdom’s size is also seen as an advantage. At about a third of the size of Texas, the nation is a much smaller area for inspectors to manage, with few areas not accessible on public roads.
"Geographically, there’s nowhere in Britain so remote that shale gas exploitation would go unsupervised," Charles said, adding that nationalized oil and gas rights and the absence of landowner royalties mean local residents will also be keeping a close watch over drilling activities.
Still, environmentalists wonder whether austerity measures have left regulators and local councils ill-equipped to manage a surge of development.
Proponents of local control over shale drilling were especially vexed in August, when government ministers announced that they would intervene if any local councils spend more than 16 weeks considering an oil and gas application.
"To ensure we get this industry up and running, we can’t have a planning system that oversees applications dragged out for months, or even years on end," Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said when the "fast track" policy was unveiled.
While the government emphasized that 16 weeks is the customary timetable, set by law, for local decisionmaking, environmentalists argued that the policy was designed to prevent local authorities from giving adequate consideration to all the potential impacts.
"It looked very dodgy, indeed," Shirley said. "They were speeding everything up. There wouldn’t be the time that is often necessary when you’re looking at scientific reports and such."
The SaFE Alliance took quick legal action, notifying the government that it believed the policy was crafted improperly, without consultation or an impact assessment. The government replied last month, insisting that the August document merely clarified existing powers and was not required to go through a formal consultation process.
During the October meeting, the Sheffield environmentalists noted that they worried about the implications of the government’s policy but would wait and see just how much the government would involve itself in local decisionmaking.
"We’ll see what the government will do," Greenpeace activist Phil Daly said during the meeting. "Is it a threat, or will they actually go ahead with it?"
The SaFE Alliance, meanwhile, is keeping an eye on the situation, ready to bring another challenge if any actions raise red flags. But, Shirley said, echoing the position of many American environmentalists, there may be no combination of regulations and policies to assure her that shale drilling is the right path for England.
"I’m sure any country could put good regulations together," she said. "But I don’t think you can actually regulate and make something with so many uncertainties safe."
The group has partnered with Bindmans LLP — a London law firm specializing in human rights issues — for future action.