Letter from the Commissioner for Shale Gas

I have received a number of letter from constituents about Shale Gas extraction, expressing a range of views. I thought it might be helpful to share this letter that the recently appointed Commissioner for Shale Gas, Natascha Engel, wrote to Editors of news outlets:

My name is Natascha Engel and I am writing in my capacity as the government’s newly-appointed Commissioner for Shale Gas. In this role I have been visiting groups and residents in areas around the UK affected by fracking applications.

Since hydraulic fracturing recently started in Preston, I have become alarmed at the effect that some of the local and national media coverage on fracking and earthquakes is having on people.

While fracking operations are underway, the “earthquakes” coverage is almost constant. Whilst technically true because even the slightest movement underground is called an earthquake, it is not what normal people understand by the word.

A tremor over one mile underground reading 1.1 in magnitude on the surface is not only something that can’t be felt, it is something that would never be reported if it was caused by anything other than fracking.

Quarry blasting is common in Derbyshire and causes surface tremors many times greater than fracking. In fact, a blast in the Peak District in August was so strong that it was picked up by Cuadrilla’s highly sensitive equipment as a 1.7 magnitude event. But it wasn’t reported because it had nothing to do with fracking.

We have recently had the news of geothermal exploration in Cornwall which uses a process of injecting water into the ground, very similar to fracking, but because geothermal energy is considered to be renewable, the process is celebrated (and I wish it well).

The traffic light system for earthquakes related to fracking was applied to the industry after it caused small tremors in Blackpool in 2011. It was set extremely low so that if a tremor of 0.5 is detected (and it can only be detected because of the highly sensitive equipment that has been installed to do so), operations have to pause so that everyone can be sure that fracking can continue safely. It was never intended to stop the industry but rather to reassure people.

Operations do not have to stop in other industries such as construction and engineering when the equivalent ground motions are detected. By reporting fracking events that cause tremors of 1.1 as earthquakes but not reporting similar or greater events in other industries, the media is in danger of reinforcing a narrative of fear around fracking.

What matters in this important debate is that it is science and fact led but at the moment the coverage is highly emotional. Without putting these earthquakes into a proper context and making people fearful about something that can’t even be felt, we can’t ever look at the wider picture and ask ourselves why extracting gas from beneath our feet is so important.

  • Gas is significantly cleaner than coal. By changing our coal-fired power stations to gas the UK reduced its carbon emissions by over 7% between 2015 and 2016.
  • 85% of us use gas to heat our homes and over 60% of us use it for cooking.
  • Since 2004, we have been importing gas – more and more of it as our North Sea fields run out. That means billions of taxpayer pounds are being spent on buying in gas from Qatar.
  • Last year, of the total energy we consumed, only 2.2% came from wind and 0.5% came from solar (according to the government’s Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2018). We are a very long way off a time when renewables plug the energy gap.

To help bridge to a future where more of our energy comes from renewables, getting gas from underground in Lancashire, Cheshire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, creating hundreds if not thousands of good jobs in places that really need them, we could displace the gas we are importing at the same time as using the substantial tax receipts to invest in the NHS, social care or renewable energy.

The real story that everyone seems to be missing by focusing on tiny tremors that can’t even be felt at the surface is that Cuadrilla’s test results look like there is plenty of gas down there.

Forty years ago when we found North Sea oil and gas we rightly celebrated our energy independence, the hundreds and thousands of jobs that it has brought over the years, the expertise and knowledge which we can now apply to shale gas exploration, and the boon to our public finances.

In contrast, the current level of reporting in some areas feels more like what happened in the mid-19th century when our nascent car industry was nearly destroyed by forcing a man with a red flag to walk in front of automated road vehicles to stop them driving faster than 4 miles per hour.

If we stopped all industries that caused 0.5 magnitude surface tremors, there wouldn’t be a house, hospital, school or road built.

This is not to say that the current system for pausing fracking should be changed, only that the reporting of it should be more rational and science-based so that readers, listeners and viewers can be informed and educated rather than made afraid.

Precaution is important but so is perspective.

All good wishes


Natascha Engel

Commissioner for Shale Gas