Comment: Shale gas is a risk worth taking

It is the acceptable face of bribery in Britain. As hundreds of communities in the north-west are about to discover, the government's 'incentives scheme' for shale gas is set to use a lump sum of cash to persuade local businesses and homeowners to tolerate the establishment of gas wells across the north of England.

Ministers seem to be taking an increasingly unsubtle approach to the compensation culture. In the past fluffier solutions have been put forward to soften the blow of new development proposals: a new roundabout here, a new bus shelter there. Now politicians are starting to realise only hard cash really sells.

Up to £100,000 per well could be doled out to keep the locals happy on shale gas. But some of it will be going to councils rather than communities, meaning there are question-marks over how much those really affected will actually feel the benefits of the money.

The shale gas companies in at the start are optimistic about winning over the locals. Their big worry is the big-fish environmentalist NGOs, who they fear will meddle in the planning and approvals process.

Shale gas is not beloved by green campaigners. Their concern is that they will transfer even more hydrocarbons from the depths of the Earth to the atmosphere. North Sea oil, they fear, will not remain in the ground because of shale gas' extraction. The shale bosses respond by claiming their product will be low-carbon; it is nowhere near as bad as coal, they say. And by cutting out the costs of importing fossil fuels vast amounts of carbon emissions could be avoided.

Their anxieties are angrily rejected by the enemy. Environmental groups only tend to step in to assist locals determined to resist where the community is already opposed, they argue. It's not a case of simply parachuting activists into an area and getting them to drum up a fight for the sake of it. Despite the protestations of green groups, though, shale gas bosses are preparing for a fight. They instinctively fear the "well-funded, well-organised objections", as one US industry chief puts it.

The harshest critics of shale gas in Britain are alarmed by a "fetishising" of the US experience, where shale is revolutionising the American energy picture. The geological conditions are trickier in Britain, it's true. Although there is a lot of shale gas underneath Yorkshire and Lancashire, only a fraction is actually recoverable.

Consultants also fear broader reasons why the UK might be a tougher nut for the industry to crack: their image of the cantankerous, resistant old Brit is actually grounded in fears about greater population densities and restrictive planning laws and environmental regulations. The Environment Agency is particularly suspicious of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. It will be harder than in the US to persuade the authorities that the American horror stories – contaminated drinking water, reduced air quality, lorry movements and the rapid use of vast volumes of water needed for extraction – will not cause trouble over here, too.

Fracking, as everyone calls it, is at the heart of the fears surrounding shale gas. It is the perception that extracting shale gas will trigger earthquakes and send local house prices plummeting through the floor which poses the greatest threat to shale gas in Britain.

Two minor earthquakes in the spring of 2011 caused by fracking triggered a moratorium on exploratory drilling imposed by ministers. It was an "abysmal" start, Shell's chief executive Peter Voser observed last week. The industry's answer to these concerns, summed up, is: 'They're only small earthquakes.' That sounds ridiculous, but is actually true. There are a handful of earthquakes every month, most of which go unnoticed, of the magnitude likely to be triggered by fracking. Still, the confidence of the companies desperate to start drilling does not seem entirely justified. It comes back to Britain's flaky geology. We won't be completely certain there may not be bigger earthquakes until we've started.

Ministers are not going to let either environmental or safety concerns stop them. They are opening up the planning framework to make it easier for the shale gas firms to get started. Their goal is to win over local communities – and the politically powerful councils who govern their local public services – with hard cash. Everyone has a price, their logic seems to be, but the compensation process is flawed. Simply shrugging their shoulders and warning that you can't please everyone, the automatic response of those faced with local opponents, may only give the environmental groups the excuse they need to start fanning the flames of dissent.

The strategic reasons for pressing ahead with shale gas are trumping everything you've read about so far. Domestically produced shale gas would help lower British energy bills, improve the country's energy security and give a much-needed boost to the economy. Even if it has half the impact it has had in the US, it will be worthwhile. That is what ministers are hoping. That is why they want to press ahead: from the national point of view, if not the local one, shale gas is a risk worth taking.

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