The prime minister has said he’s willing to go “all out” for shale gas. That’s upset George Osborne’s father-in-law and former Tory energy minister, Lord Howell, who has suggested large swathes of the country should be off-limits for fracking. Failing to do so so could cost the Conservatives precious votes, he warns.
Writing in the Journal of Energy Security, Lord Howell claims he “dearly wants” the UK to develop a shale gas industry, but that ministers shouldn’t be promising to frack just anywhere.
This isn’t the first time Howell has offered well-meaning advice on where to frack. Last year, he declared fracking should only be given the go-ahead in the “desolate” north, later clarifying that he only meant the region’s “derelict” former mining communities.
Since Lord Howell seems to have made it his personal mission to site the UK’s fledgling shale gas industry, we were wondering – where does he think we should be fracking?
For the purposes of this exercise, let’s assume Scotland goes independent and Wales refuses to let shale gas developers over the border (for no reason other than it makes our life easier). In that case, we’re only considering England.
As it stands, any company holding a conventional oil and gas license can apply to frack. The map below shows which parts of the country the government is currently considering offering licenses to operate in.
As you can see, it covers most of the country – about 63% Greenpeace blog Energy Desk reckons.
Of course, plenty of these regions will probably stay frack-pad free.
For starters, there may not be any shale gas there. Even if there is, there’s lots of other environmental, political, and economic considerations which will could make getting gas out tricky.
Nonetheless, it’s a good starting point for working out where could – theoretically – be fracked.
Home counties and ‘the South’
In his article, Lord Howell name drops two areas in particular that should be avoided: the “Home counties” and “Southern England”.
He’s concerned that starting in England’s green and pleasant lands will be met with “hostility from both green left and countryside right” and could cost the Tories votes.
So, remembering that yellow areas are potential frack-sites, here’s what the license map looks like once you’ve taken out first the home counties:
And then the rest of “Southern England”:
That’s a decent chunk of prospective shale gas sites gone, then, and all in the name of keeping the Conservative’s voting base happy.
As Lord Howell’s principal concern over fracking seems to be the prospect of the Conservatives losing votes, it’s a fair bet that he’d rather fracking didn’t take place in blue constituencies.
Unfortunately that covers quite a lot of the rural areas of the country. Rule out areas with Tory MPs, and the potentially frack-able yellow area shrinks dramatically:
Finally, Lord Howell infamously expressed his desire for fracking to only take place in “desolate” areas. If you Ask Jeeves what “desolate” means, it’ll tell you it’s an area “deprived or destitute of inhabitants”, which is going to rule out anywhere populated.
Layering a map of the UK’s population density on top of the (already pretty limited) area left for fracking shows that by Lord Howell’s criteria, there isn’t much space remaining once people have been factored in.
In the (slightly blurred) map below, red areas are concentrations of population. If you’re after desolation, you’re pretty much left with a little strip of north Norfolk, east Northumbria and the far-north west of England (lots of which is a national park – the Lake District – which could complicate things. Or not):
So if you’re a resident of Roughton, Frosterly or Mealsgate (in the areas with the frack pad icons), you may just be sufficiently geologically interesting and electorally benign to become the North Dakota of England.
This is a rather speculative exercise, of course. Politicians will probably ignore Lord Howell’s advice, and fracking could end up taking place “everywhere in Britain”, just as he fears. Indeed, business minister Michael Fallon has told his party colleagues they can’t be picky, and must face the prospect of shale gas on their doorsteps.
Nonetheless, working through Lord Howell’s comments does show the difficulty with pushing for a shale gas revolution while hammering “keep out” signs across your (metaphorical) lawn – you may end up with very limited parts of the country left to frack.
Data credits: The maps were created using Google Earth. The counties data came from Nemezis Project. The UK constituency data came from the Guardian Datastore. The population density data came from NASA's Socioeconomic Data and Applications Centre.
Expert analysis directly to your inbox.