Shale gas fracking in Britain must be tightly controlled if it is not to run counter to the U.K.’s targets on climate change, says a report by the government’s own advisors. 

Last week the U.K. Government published long-awaited advice from the Committee on Climate Change, a statutory body set up to advise ministers on keeping greenhouse gas levels within legal limits. Its report says three conditions must be met to address the risk, but says it is not clear how easy this is going to be.

The report identifies the risk of methane leaks as one that must be rapidly addressed. It also argues that any shale gas produced in the U.K. should displace imports rather than increase its overall use. The government will also, it says, have to offset shale gas’s impact on the climate by cutting greenhouse gas emissions in other industries, if the U.K. is to meet its climate action targets.

Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the U.K. is committed to an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050 compared with levels in 1990. Environmentalists are not the only ones who have bitterly opposed attempts to exploit the country’s shale gas resources – there has also been considerable push-back from local communities. 

Professor Jim Skea, a member of the Committee on Climate Change, said, “Under best practice, U.K. shale gas may have a lower carbon footprint than much of the gas that we import. However, gas is a fossil fuel wherever it comes from and is not a low-carbon option, unless combined with carbon capture and storage. This report sets out the tests that must be met for shale gas development to be consistent with U.K. carbon budgets.”

“Existing uncertainties over the nature of the exploitable shale gas resource and the potential size of a U.K. industry make it impossible to know how difficult it will be to meet the tests. Clarification of the regulation of the sector will also be needed,” he said.

"The Committee on Climate Change is right to suggest there are strict limits on methane leaks from the extraction, storage and transportation of natural gas as well as restrictions on gas consumption and carbon output imposed on any U.K. shale gas project. Sites must be closely monitored by both the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive to ensure environmental impact assessments are carried out and appropriate well depth and integrity is maintained,” said the U.K.’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, in response.

However, it said that one of its recent reports demonstrated that the regulatory framework for well integrity in the U.K. was shown to be “robust and comprehensive.” 

“We must ensure that this continues to be the case post Brexit ... shale gas is not a silver-bullet solution to meeting the U.K.'s future energy demands, but has a role to play in a diverse and balanced energy portfolio which also includes nuclear, renewables, demand side management and storage,” said Dr. Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and the Environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

“Shale gas could provide opportunities for localized U.K. supply that replaces imports … there is a long way to go before shale gas provides significant amounts of gas in the U.K.,” she added. 

Fracking received a go-ahead in the U.K. for the first time since 2011 in May this year, in North Yorkshire. It was forced to halt its efforts after causing two minor earth tremors, which led to a temporary ban on fracking. U.K. Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom said at the time, “We’re very clear that fracking is a fantastic opportunity.”

However, the protests have gained ground since Cuadrilla Resources (46 per cent owned by Australian engineer AJ Lucas (ASX:AJL), first attempted to frack for shale gas near Blackpool in 2011. 

Cuadrilla wants to carry out fracking at two sites in northwest England. It said in May that it hoped to get government approval to start operations at the sites before August, according to Reuters.

"If we get good results from the wells ... gas could go into the system next year," Francis Egan, chief executive of Cuadrilla, told Reuters. Gas flows from initial testing would be small but Mr. Egan said full production could start in 2018 if necessary permits were obtained.

In response to the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change, Dr. Aniston of the U.K. Institution of Mechanical Engineers also said, “If local authorities and communities are to make informed decisions on whether to allow fracking to take place in their locality they need to understand all the issues and have an opportunity to discuss them sensibly.” 

But in the current climate of escalated emotion in Britain following the vote to leave the European Union, it is arguable whether that is going to happen, particularly given Professor Skea’s emphasis on the existing uncertainties about the sector.

Dina Medland is an independent writer, editor and commentator with a strong focus on issues around corporate governance, ethics, the workings of the boardroom and sustainable business. She is on the team of contributors to @ForbesEurope and is an ex-Financial Times staff member who has been a regular contributor in recent years. Further details about her background and a portfolio of work – including her commercially sponsored blog ‘Board Talk’ are available on her website http://www.dinamedland.com