A Parliamentary enquiry into shale gas exploration in the UK has decided it should be regulated, but not banned. Many of the safety concerns were overblown and, in the words of the Greener-than-thou select committee chairman Tim Yeo MP: "Hot air".
Environmentalists claimed that "fracking", or rock fracturing, one of the older techniques used in shale gas exploration, posed a threat to aquifers several thousand feet above the fracturing. The claim has never been substantiated, but there's a powerful range of lobbying interests ranging from conventional gas suppliers (Gazprom), the nuclear industry, and (some but not all) climate campaigners, who are keen to see it thwarted.
"Regulations in the UK are stronger than in the States and should stop anything of the sort from happening here," said Yeo, an MP with personal interests in renewable energy. "There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of 'fracking' itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe."
In other words, there's a risk – but it's a risk that can be managed by regulation – and when it is, the positives outweigh the costs. Positives include greater energy independence, lower carbon emissions where gas power generation replaces coal, and lower energy costs. Lower energy costs, in turn, help lift millions out of poverty and create jobs.
During the enquiry phase, MPs heard from a range of groups, including the WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) which argued that "the majority of the world's fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground". Campaigners' claims that fracking was a new technique were dismissed by experts. Professor Selley of Imperial College London described fracking as "old as Moses, [it] has been used in the petroleum industry for decades".
An Oscar-nominated documentary called Gaslands made much of a householder's flaming taps, where methane in the water could be ignited from the tap. A geological survey showed the methane came not from the fracking, but the householder's waste.
The MPs visited the USA and concluded that:
"Any instances of methane contamination of groundwater were either blamed on poor well construction (an issue that applies to conventional as well as unconventional hydrocarbons) or were thought to pre-date any hydrofracking activity."
So while Gaslands might have raised "awareness" (a word beloved by Greens) of shale – some people will believe anything so long as it conforms to a Doomsday, man-harms-nature narrative – it may ultimately have damaged the campaign.