LONDON (Reuters) - Two groups of Church of England advisers have cautiously endorsed fracking for shale gas in the United Kingdom provided it does not conflict with climate change policy and robust regulations are put in place.
If the Church’s advisory panel had come out against fracking, the decision would have been widely cited by lobbying groups active on climate issues as well as local issues to oppose further drilling and fracturing.
Instead its cautious endorsement, subject to conditions, is in line with an evolving consensus that does not oppose fracking in principle but is likely to remain wary in practice for the time being.
“Shale gas is a potentially useful element in achieving a transition to a much lower carbon economy,” church advisers wrote in a briefing paper published on Tuesday.
“The government’s public commitment to reducing the UK’s carbon emissions ... provides a context which should ensure that shale gas is not treated as an alibi for ducking carbon reduction commitments.”
Fracking can be a “morally acceptable practice” provided that it does not undermine the clean energy transition, that robust safety and environmental regulations are put in place, and that local communities are given a say.
“We recognize and sympathize with the concerns of individuals and communities who are directly affected by fracking,” the report notes.
“It is essential that their legitimate concerns are heard and appropriate protections and compensation are in place.”
The ethical assessment is contained in a joint briefing published on Jan. 17 by the Mission and Public Affairs Council and Environmental Working Group of the Church of England.
It is intended to help shape the church’s thinking as well as provide input for the investment decisions of the Church Commissioners (“Shale gas and fracking”, Church of England, December 2016).
The Church Commissioners manage an asset portfolio valued at around 7 billion pounds ($9 billion) on behalf of England’s state church (Church Commissioners Annual Report 2015).
They are among the leadership of the movement for responsible and ethical investing and a key target for non-government organizations lobbying on climate and energy issues.
The guarded endorsement of fracking is broadly in line with current government policy, which supports carefully regulated development with compensation payments to local communities.
The authors conclude fracking for shale gas can be reconciled with climate commitments if it displaces imported liquefied natural gas and higher carbon energy sources such as coal.
The assessment relies heavily on the UK government’s carbon budgeting framework which it says should ensure any increase in greenhouse emissions from shale gas must be offset by a reduction from other sectors.
“The government’s commitment to (the 2015 Paris climate agreement) means that overall carbon consumption in the UK must be constrained whatever its source,” the report observes.
“As shale gas is a cleaner option than some alternatives, the case can be made that, as transition to a low carbon economy is a gradual process, shale gas has an important role to play in such a policy.”
The moral acceptability of fracking then rests on the robustness of the regulatory regime and its ability to engage with community concerns, according to the report.
“We are persuaded that a robust planning and regulatory regime could be constructed,” the report concludes, but it will need “constant vigilance”.
In practice, Britain’s shale gas industry remains at an infant stage. Only four wells have been drilled into shale formations. Just one of those has been fractured so far and that induced seismic activity.
Britain’s potential shale resource base is thought to be large but its technical recoverability and cost are subject to considerable uncertainty that can only be resolved by drilling.
The national government is broadly supportive of the practice and is encouraging more development in England but fracking moratoriums are in place in Scotland and Wales.
Domestic shale production is unlikely to occur on any significant scale within the next 5-10 years and Britain may never develop substantial onshore output given its complicated planning process.
Britain’s local government machinery exhibits a formidable bias against any sort of development outside major urban centers, compounding the nation’s housing shortage.
Editing by Ruth Pitchford
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