On Monday, the United Kingdom’s government opened its 14th onshore oil and gas licensing round, the first in six years, giving fossil fuel companies the chance to bid for licenses across nearly half the region. It is also the first round of licensing since the initial exploratory shale gas wells were drilled in the U.K. around four years ago. This latest round was delayed three years after seismic tremors caused by prior exploration pushed back the process.
The announcement doesn’t actually grant permission for companies to start fracking, but paves the way for exploratory licenses to move forward. The government published a roadmap of other permissions that are required before actual drilling can take place.
For the next two months until October 28th, the firms will be bidding for exclusive rights to search for oil and gas beneath 6.2 by 6.2 square mile blocks. The total available land for bidding is about 37,000 square miles. The total area of Great Britain — England, Scotland, and Wales — is 88,745 square miles, meaning the bidding area covers just over two-fifths of the country. The licenses will cover exploration for shale gas as well as conventional gas and oil.
This includes parts of National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and World Heritage Sites. However, applications will only be accepted for these areas in “exceptional circumstances and in the public interest”, according to the government. Firms that want to frack in or near European projected areas will also have to pass through additional requirements. The outcome of this decision is not yet known, with the U.K.-based Carbon Brief reporting that “the precise impact of this wording will remain unclear until tested during the planning process and ultimately in the courts.”
While the restrictions stop short of a total ban, they represent a concession from those in the government keen on increasing natural gas production. Matthew Hancock, the business and energy minister, said that the new measures “will protect Britain’s great national parks and outstanding landscapes”.
Hancock went on to say that “unlocking shale gas in Britain has the potential to provide us with greater energy security, jobs and growth,” but was unable to name a single community that supports the changes. Widespread protests from communities in the U.K. opposed to fracking have helped elevate the conversation at the national level and bring attention to local environmental concerns.
There are around 130 opposition groups to fracking across the country, and the government found that there was “strong support for the exclusion from licensing of environmentally sensitive sites,” as part of an assessment published this week.
The benefits of increasing natural gas production in terms of climate change are also hotly contested. While natural gas releases fewer greenhouse gas emissions than coal, this is dependent on minimizing methane leaks. Ramping up natural gas production could also delay the transition to renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, wave, tidal, and geothermal.
The U.K.’s former chief climate diplomat, John Ashton, is very skeptical of any of natural gas’s benefits in mitigating climate change. “You can be in favor of fixing the climate,” he previously said. “Or you can be in favor of exploiting shale gas. But you can’t be in favor of both at the same time.”
The U.K. is a highly populated region with a wealth of treasured environmental areas. Robert Gatliff, director of energy and marine geoscience at the British Geological Survey, said that this is a factor in how successful fracking for natural gas will be. He also warned that Britain will need a thousand of successful shale wells a year to meet demand, saying “I think that’s years away and will probably never happen, that’s a big target.”