Right, let's get fracking
I write this blog shortly after a leisurely stroll through downtown New Orleans, on my way back from a meeting with a US oil and gas lawyer (and there are plenty round here, believe me, and many of them are still enjoying the BP litigation bonanza).
What a terrific view from his office 30 floors up. The Mississippi snakes through the city in the near distance, today graced by a handful of warships in port to mark the bicentennial commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans in 1812 (known here as the second war of independence). The battle saw the Royal Navy get comprehensively thrashed by a much smaller US navy (as I'm being reminded regularly - you would have thought they would have gotten over us burning down the White House by now).
But what the panoramic view of New Orleans also reveals is a total absence of renewable energy. It's scorching hot, with a humid breeze, and not a solar panel or turbine in sight, anywhere. This is most definitely oil and gas country. Indeed, they have so much gas down here that they're building a new terminal at the port to export it, liquefied, on tankers.
And that leads me to fracking (or, strictly, fracturing). The US has taken the lead in developing shale gas fields, with 27% of the overall US natural gas production now coming from shale gas. That, and a warm winter, has helped lead to a sharp drop in US gas prices.
Back in the UK, fracking for shale gas is still in its infancy.
It is just a year since Cuadrilla Resources suspended its fracking activities near Blackpool after the area was hit with a series of minor earth tremors. Investigations since have laid the blame squarely at the door of the 'frackers'. However, in a report from a government panel of experts published last week, we are now told the risks are minimal and that activities should resume, albeit under strict regulation. A formal decision is expected soon, potentially unlocking significant UK shale reserves.
Interestingly the report makes a case for increased monitoring of seismic activity during fracking, with operations suspended immediately if tremors of magnitude 0.5 or above are triggered. Cuadrilla Resources had proposed a not unsurprisingly higher threshold of 1.7 magnitude.
To put these into perspective the quake in Lincolnshire in 2008, which shook Birmingham, was a 5.2 magnitude quake. However, because the Richter scale is a base-10 logarithmic scale, a 5.2 quake equates to the vibrations caused by about 400 tons of TNT exploding and a 0.5 equates to a hand grenade going off - thank you Wikipedia. So, in relative terms, it may not take much for the threshold to be breached and operations suspended; strict regulation indeed, at least in relation to the quake risk. .
Nonetheless, are we about to enter another golden age for gas, in what many are describing as the second 'dash for gas'?
Well, there are many vested interests at stake which make things complicated. Take the renewables industry, which fears that a new dash for gas could result in lower gas prices, which would change the underlying economic fundamentals of renewable energy, which in turn could curtail the development of renewable technologies.
Certainly that's the worry in the US, where shale gas has already transformed the energy landscape and now risks not only restricting the growth of renewable energy's share of electricity but also pushing back the development of carbon capture and storage (CCS).
For the UK, with steady progress along a path to a low carbon future, our aim must be a diverse energy mix, which means a stable investment environment for the likes of wind, solar, biogas and tidal, and of course CCS. The green light for fracking should not throw us off course.
Perhaps I'm fretting unduly. The US is a big country, without the same pressures on space and development that we see in the UK. Nimbyism, exemplified by the reaction of many to the rise of the onshore wind turbines, and now seemingly enshrined to some extent in our planning system thanks to the concept of localism, could mean we see communities in revolt at the prospect of earth tremors quite literally shaking the shires to their foundations.