Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Unconventional hydrocarbons in the UK energy system

The aim of this programme on unconventional hydrocarbons in the UK energy system is to develop an updated independent scientific evidence base to understand potential environmental and socio-economic impacts and processes of unconventional hydrocarbon development.

Budget:
£8 million (£6 million from NERC and £2 million from ESRC)
Duration:
2018 to 2022
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The outcome of this research programme on unconventional hydrocarbons in the UK energy system will be the provision of an updated independent scientific evidence base to understand potential environmental and social and economic impacts and processes of unconventional hydrocarbon development.

The UK is committed to implementing a transition to a low carbon energy system, reflected in the 2008 Climate Change Act. This includes both a long-term target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% between 1990 and 2050 and a commitment for the UK to a series of five-year carbon budgets informed by advice from the Committee on Climate Change. Furthermore, the Paris Agreement to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions has been ratified by the UK.

Alongside these commitments to emissions reduction, the UK government has emphasised a number of other important policy goals. In particular the government has committed to maintaining energy security and to ensuring that the low carbon transition is implemented so that it is affordable and feasible for consumers and businesses alike.

A range of energy resources, infrastructures and technologies are likely to be required as part of the UK’s transition to a low carbon energy system. Many of these resources are likely to have environmental and social and economic impacts on a local, regional and national scale. There is, however, significant uncertainty about the mix of resources and technologies that will, and could, be used.

Whilst this transition will involve a shift from fossil fuels to non-fossil sources of energy, it is anticipated that fossil fuels will remain part of the UK’s energy mix for several decades. Unconventional extraction of natural gas, in particular from shale, may be one potential source of gas for the UK in future.

There is an active debate currently about whether shale gas exploitation in the UK has the potential to provide a secure supply of domestic natural gas and displace the use of coal in our energy mix. This activity is not without concern. Despite the widespread use of the technology (300,000 fracked wells in the United States, two million worldwide), the development of unconventional hydrocarbons remains controversial as questions regarding possible groundwater contamination, induced seismicity, air quality and greenhouse gas emissions remain and require a greater level of independent evidence.

Moreover, recent work has highlighted a number of key interconnected topics where further development of the underpinning science and evidence would assist decision making around national planning applications, the development of regulation and management of exploratory activities in the UK. There is an urgent need for independent and academically rigorous research into the environmental and social and economic impacts of unconventional hydrocarbon development in the specific context of the UK.

The focus of this programme is to improve our understanding of the options for unconventional hydrocarbon development, taking a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the environmental, economic, governance, public and political acceptance and wider societal aspects of this approach on a national level.

The main objective of the research programme is to significantly improve the scientific evidence base on shale gas as a potential energy resource for the UK. Therefore, all proposed activities must be demonstrably applicable to the UK energy research landscape.

In order to meet the main objective, NERC and ESRC have identified five challenges:

  • the evolving shale gas landscape
  • shale resource potential, distribution, composition, mechanical and flow properties
  • coupled processes from reservoir to surface
  • contaminant pathways and receptor impacts
  • socio-economic impacts.

Past projects, outcomes and impact

Who to contact

Ask a question about the programme

Email: uh@nerc.ukri.org

Last updated: 31 March 2022

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