Gas galore? Fracking and the future of energy

Saturday 20 October, 12.15pm until 1.15pm, Garden Room

While headlines have been dominated by financial instability in Europe and the fallout from the Arab Spring, another revolution has quietly taken place: the energy crisis may be over. The discovery of enormous reserves of readily exploitable shale gas and other ‘unconventional’ sources of energy have transformed previously pessimistic discussions around an ‘energy crunch’, with predictions that the US could be entirely self-sufficient by 2030, and the UK and Europe not far behind. Not only might Western nations no longer need to rely on volatile supplies from the Middle East: some leading experts suggest North America could become its rival, even its supplier. The spectres of brown-outs, oil shocks, and fuel rationing could be now banished to the last millennium.

Yet beyond such optimistic possibilities, serious questions remain. Deep-water oil drilling and tar sands are far from allaying fears over the safety practices and sustainability of the ‘dirty’ fossil fuel industry. While shale gas is relatively clean, the process of ‘fracking’ has met with hostility from environmental campaigners, with a forthcoming Matt Damon film The Promised Land joining Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland in opposition. Despite scientific studies stating that the earthquakes caused by fracking are no more dangerous than those regularly caused by conventional mining techniques, there remains considerable opposition to exploiting this resource. The UK government has given the go-ahead to fracking only with the promise of strict regulation, while France, Bulgaria and some US town councils have already issued moratoriums. Inside the industry, there are fears that the massive infrastructural overhaul required to make gas a viable alternative may hamper the potential offered by this abundant and cheap supply. The ongoing controversies over nuclear power, with Germany acting to close all reactors by 2017, offer a reminder of what can happen to an energy industry without strong political and social support. The gas might well be there, the technique might well be safe, but there is no guarantee we will use it.

Is the end of an energy crisis really in sight, or do the problems go much further than supply? What future do other energy sources – such as solar, wind, biofuels and even nuclear – have to play in our energy provision? Will a plentiful energy supply blind us to the need to address the concerns regarding climate change? Are there reasons to be nervous about the long-term strategic impacts that ‘quick fix’ unconventional fossil fuels provide, or should we celebrate a future free from resource shortages? With what has been called a ‘Golden Age of Gas’ now a real possibility, just how should we evaluate ‘breaking the earth’ in return for cheap energy supplies?




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Stephen Bull
vice president, Statoil (US onshore operations)

Fiona Harvey
environment correspondent, Guardian

Professor Hywel Thomas
pro vice-chancellor, International and Engagement, Cardiff University; fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering

Tony Gilland
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas

Produced by
Tony Gilland associate fellow, Academy of Ideas
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