Fracking is getting a serious amount of press coverage at the moment - for all the wrong reasons. While this method of gas extraction has been part and parcel of the US gas industry for years, in Europe and the UK it is only just making its first tentative steps into what is quite an openly hostile environment. The first test drilling in North East England was brought to a (quite literal) shuddering halt due to earth tremors that were the result of the process. But fracking, despite the environmental lobby's concerns, is a viable method of gas extraction - and there's a lot of gas down there to extract.
The future of wholesale gas?
The trouble with fracking in Europe and the UK is that it is currently an expensive option that may or may not be financially viable in the short term. The will to tap into the 639 trillion cubic feet of gas that sits underneath the European continental plate is there, but the infrastructure and the political clout isn't. Environmental issues are still a bit of a hot potato in Europe, and the Green movement has a strong and very vocal voice when it comes to lobbying the government. As a result of stringent environmental legislation and a pitifully poor fracking infrastructure, only test drilling and a small amount of commercial extraction can take place at the moment. What is needed if this massive resource is to be properly tapped into is a concerted effort to promote the positive aspects of what is a tried and tested method of extraction.
Currently, gas prices are relatively stable, thanks to a plentiful supply from alternative sources and low demand. But if the European market and the UK in particular wants to remain relatively independent of reliance on Eastern European and Russian gas supplies, then fracking has to be actively explored.
Tapping into fracking
If this massive potential supply is tapped into, it could have a dramatic effect on the price of wholesale gas in the UK, and subsequently make a real difference to consumer prices further down the line. The initial investment to make fracking a viable option may be high, but fracking, as the Americans will tell you, is a long-term option that could stabilise the future of European gas supplies.
The Green lobby is right in that yes, we do have to find cleaner energy supply alternatives. But to put the brakes on exploring such a huge natural resource for the sake of a couple of low-magnitude tremors that rattled a few teacups seems a little short-sighted to many industry watchers. European gas prices are 80% higher than those in the US, where the gas industry has embraced fracking as a major aspect of wholesale energy delivery. In Europe, the price of conventional gas is largely linked to oil prices, making them far more volatile than perhaps they should be. Locally produced shale gas extracted through fracking would potentially stabilise wholesale gas costs and remove that intractable link to oil prices. The result would be a far more stable gas market for decades to come.