Expect to see more big names from the oil industry, such as Shell, ExxonMobil and Statoil, moving into the British shale sector now that one of their competitors – Centrica – has taken the plunge. The international companies have always taken a keen interest in the UK fracking scene, despite endless statements from their chief executives that there are better prospects in China and elsewhere.
There is some speculation this weekend that the reason Centrica paid a fairly toppy price for the stake in the Bowland Shale licence from Cuadrilla Resources was because it faced competition from Shell and others.
It is not so much the geological uncertainty that made big oil hesitate in the past, but the fear of reputational damage. And as one of the industry players told the Observer: “That all changes now because Centrica has elected to become the lightning rod for the industry.”
Indeed it will. Green groups opposed to fracking because of the chemicals used and because they believe more gas use means more carbon emissions have already condemned Centrica. A couple of small earthquakes in the Blackpool region that helped to trigger an 18-month drilling moratorium have heightened public concerns. Fracking remains banned in France, Bulgaria and some other countries.
In fact it was always likely that the British Gas parent group would be first out of the blocks, not least because it has the largest retail supply business in this country.
Equally, if anyone is going to have the inside track on what government is thinking about the future taxation structure planned for a shale gas regime, it is going to be homegrown Sam Laidlaw, chief executive of Centrica, rather than say Peter Voser, the boss of Shell, who spends much more time in The Hague than London.
Laidlaw is constantly in and out of Whitehall. Until recently he was part of David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group, while Centrica, as one of the UK’s few, and by far the biggest, British-owned power suppliers, stands most to gain from changes in UK energy policy.