Attempts to establish a shale gas industry in the UK lag way behind expectations, while the costs to taxpayers mount, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).
Only three shale gas wells have been launched in England since 2016, despite government estimates that up to 20 wells would be online by mid-2020, the NAO said in a report.
The taxpayer has had to foot a bill of at least £32m since 2011 for the three wells. Meanwhile, the police presence to manage protestors at the controversial sites has cost forces over £13m.
The lagging pace of shale gas extraction contrasts with optimism from the government, which aimed to set up a shale gas industry in England despite concerns over the environmental effects of fracking.
Fracking involves extracting shale gas from shale rock using water under high pressure. Many say it has revolutionised the US energy industry. But there are fears of the possible environmental and public health risks from the process – particularly pollution and the risk of causing earthquakes.
The British government hoped it would be able to introduce fracking in the UK as gas supplies from the North Sea diminished. They believed it would make the country less reliant on foreign imports that currently comprise 60% of its gas supply.
The NAO said the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) did not know how much shale gas could be commercially extracted in the UK and has not analysed the benefits or costs of supporting the industry.
While there is public concern over possible earthquakes from fracking, operators have said the system to protect against this risk is stricter than that used internationally and has hindered their ability to develop the industry.
“Public support for shale gas development is low and has reduced over time,” the NAO added.
The government believes it can meet its climate change objectives while developing shale gas, but the NAO said it had not yet developed the necessary technology.
“Fracking has already placed financial pressures on local bodies, including local authorities and police forces,” it added. “Other costs have been borne by a range of government departments and regulators.”
A spokesperson for BEIS said: “The government has always said shale gas exploration can only proceed as long as it is safe and environmentally responsible. The Oil and Gas Authority will soon publish a finalised scientific assessment of recent industry data. We will set out our future approach as soon as we have considered the findings.”