21 Oct 2022
What’s the political context for fracking?
On 22 September 2022, the government lifted the ban on fracking in England:
"The government is today formally lifting the pause on shale gas extraction and will consider future applications for [fracking] with the domestic and global need for gas in mind and where there is local support."
On the same day, a review of how earthquakes from fracking could be reduced, commissioned by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was published on the government’s website. The review found that:
- “Forecasting the occurrence of large earthquakes and their expected magnitude remains a scientific challenge for the geoscience community. This is the case for both tectonic and induced earthquakes.”
- “It is not possible to identify all faults that could host earthquakes with magnitudes of up to 3 prior to [fracking] operations, even with the best available data.”
Considering these findings, lifting the moratorium on fracking goes against the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto, which affirmed the ban and promised that "we will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely."
The fracking industry has said that lifting the moratorium doesn’t go far enough, and they're lobbying the government to weaken earthquake and planning rules for fracking. This could include:
Relaxing the limits on earthquakes: current rules mean that fracking must be suspended for 18 hours if a tremor over 0.5 magnitude (ML) is detected, but fracking companies have called for an increased threshold. This would allow fracking companies to make much larger earthquakes.
Changing the planning policy: over 20 Conservative MPs and Peers have signed an open letter calling on the Prime Minister to classify fracking sites as nationally significant infrastructure projects. This would make it much harder for councils and communities to reject local fracking sites.
The government has signalled that it plans to rip up the rules on fracking, even if this imposes more risks and disturbance on local communities. The Business Secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, wrote in an energy statement that "tolerating a higher degree of risk and disturbance appears to us to be in the national interest […] HM government will be reviewing this aspect of [fracking] policy as part of a wider reflection on how to better support the industry […].”
Would fracking address the energy crisis?
Would fracking improve energy security?
Fracking would have a minimal impact on energy security for the UK and the rest of Europe. Geological constraints and widespread local opposition to fracking make it very unlikely that significant quantities of shale gas could be extracted in England.
Although the fracking industry claims that the theoretical resource of English shale gas is large, many leading geologists believe that the volume of gas that could realistically be extracted by fracking would be very small. For example:
"Can fracking for shale gas alleviate the UK’s energy supply crisis? No! [...] The reserve [of shale gas] – which can be won by drilling and fracking is tiny. We have, to put it bluntly the wrong kind of shale [...] We also have the wrong kind of geology, small geological basins rather than vast tracts of identical geology and our island is too crowded to get in the thousands of wells to sustain a shale-gas industry." – Professor Jon Gluyas (Director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University)
"[...] the measured gas in place [in England] is very small – 15 times less than the original theoretical estimates […] The UK is not the USA. Our UK geology is complicated, full of pre-existing faults, and our UK shales are old and have already lost their gas." – Professor Stuart Haszeldine (School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh)
In the 10 years before the fracking moratorium was imposed in 2019, the fracking industry only managed to use high volume fracking for 3 wells, all operated in Lancashire by Cuadrilla, an oil and gas exploration company. This is a far cry from the 6,100 new fracking wells that would be needed to replace just 50% of our gas imports, according to research by the Cardiff Business School.
Iain Conn, who was the CEO of the company Centrica when it owned a stake in a fracking license, has recently admitted that fracking wouldn't have a meaningful impact on gas supplies: "in practice I don’t think it’s possible to drill enough wells to be able to make a material difference to the UK’s supplies. Fracking is dead. Let it rest in peace."
Even the founder and the former public affairs director of Cuadrilla have said that fracking can’t work for the UK: “First, just because a resource exists does not mean it’s feasible or economic to extract it […] The second issue is the enormous scale of operations that would be required to replace even 10% of UK natural gas […].”
By far the quickest and most effective way to reduce the UK’s gas imports is to reduce our dependence on using gas. In the short-term, we'll still need some gas to meet electricity demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, but there's still huge scope to reduce the consumption of gas for electricity by boosting renewable energy production. The government can also slash gas use for home heating by funding a nationwide insulation program, and by providing more financial support for people to replace their gas boilers with electric heat pumps.
Would fracking reduce energy bills?
Fracking would have no meaningful impact on the price of gas in the UK. As explained above, it's highly unlikely that large quantities of shale gas could be extracted from fracking in England due to adverse geological conditions and widespread public opposition to fracking.
What’s more, the fracked gas would be sold in the European gas markets to the highest bidder. Any amount of UK shale gas extracted would be tiny in comparison to the total supply of European gas so the impact of fracking on the price we pay for gas would be negligible.
This has been acknowledged by Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, who wrote: “no amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European price any time soon.” Excellent point, Kwasi.
Emma Pinchbeck, the head of Energy UK, the association of British energy companies, agreed: "UK [gas] production wouldn’t really help bills […] UK gas is sold in European and global markets. We need to reduce UK dependence on gas."
The reason why energy bills are so high is because the UK is very reliant on using gas, which is now extremely expensive. In contrast, new wind and solar projects will generate electricity on average 9 times cheaper than gas between now and 2027. Therefore, to reduce our energy bills, the government must remove the planning restrictions on onshore wind and solar energy. It can also rapidly slash energy bills by funding councils to roll out a street-by-street insulation program.
How quickly could a fracking industry develop?
Truss said that the UK "could get gas flowing as soon as six months from now where there is local support for it." However, the track record of fracking demonstrates that it could take many years for a fracking application to go through the planning and regulatory systems.
Earlier this year, the UK’s new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng wrote that: "even if we lifted the fracking moratorium tomorrow, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside."
The fracking industry has been lobbying the government to fast-track fracking. It has called on the government to designate projects as "nationally significant infrastructure", which would give ministers the power to approve projects and remove the right of councils to have a meaningful say. If the government caves in to the industry and takes power away from councils, it'd totally undermine Liz Truss' claim that fracking will only take place where it has local support.
What are the local impacts of fracking?
How popular is fracking?
In August 2022, Liz Truss promised that "fracking will only take place in areas with a clear public consensus behind it." The problem for the government is that fracking has faced strong opposition in every community where it's been proposed. An opinion poll in 2017 revealed that two-thirds off residents in Lancashire, which is the only county that has experienced high-volume fracking, opposed it in their area.
Fracking is the most unpopular form of energy generation in the UK, according to a September 2022 Survation poll. The poll found that only 34% of people support fracking, compared to 74% support for onshore wind and 81% support for solar energy.
What are the impacts of fracking on earthquakes?
Both sites that have been fracked in England were aborted due to earthquakes. Below is a brief history of fracking-induced earthquakes.
In 2011, fracking by Cuadrilla at its Preese Hall site in Lancashire triggered earthquakes which led to the steel casing of the well becoming deformed. As a result of these earthquakes, a "traffic light" system was introduced by the government in 2014, including limits agreed by experts and with the agreement of the fracking industry.
In 2019, Cuadrilla triggered another series of earth tremors at its Preston New Road site, including a 2.9 magnitude earthquake that alarmed residents living 5 miles away who felt their houses shake. Cuadrilla was forced to repeatedly halt fracking operations due to these earthquakes. As a result, it lobbied for a relaxation of the earthquake rules but this was rejected by the then Energy Minister Claire Perry who said "it would be a very foolish politician who would do things that would be considered to be relaxing regulatory standards when we are trying to reassure people about safety."
A report from the regulator found that it wasn't possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations. Introducing the fracking moratorium in November 2019, then Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng stated that "it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community."
The fracking industry is now moving the goalposts by demanding weaker earthquake regulations. Current rules mean that fracking must be suspended for 18 hours if a tremor over 0.5 magnitude (ML) is detected, but fracking companies have called for a much higher threshold. This would allow fracking companies to make much larger earthquakes, and would further undermine confidence that fracking can be done safely.
What are the impacts of fracking on the English countryside?
Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has written that fracking "would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside". This echoes the words of former US Energy Secretary, Ernest Moniz: "the one thing it’s very hard to change is that [fracking] is a big industrial enterprise. That’s one thing you can’t avoid."
The fracking industry likes to claim that fracking occupies less land than renewable energy projects such as wind farms. However, this comparison is misleading as it includes the large amount of empty space between wind turbines. Moreover, land area occupied by fracking sites doesn't capture the full impacts on the countryside.
Fracking significantly increases local air pollution and traffic as each fracking well requires transportation of equipment, chemicals and wastewater. For example, in 2015, the fracking company Third Energy anticipated that one fracking site in North Yorkshire would involve over 14,000 vehicle movements.
According to analysis by the Cardiff Business School for Friends of the Earth in 2018, to replace half of UK gas imports from 2021–2035 would require drilling and fracking 6,100 shale gas wells (one per day for 15 years). This could generate over 6 million additional lorry movements, many on rural roads.
What's the impact of fracking on climate breakdown?
Fracking contributes to climate breakdown by emitting greenhouse gases. When the shale gas extracted from fracking is burnt, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Fracking also releases methane, a greenhouse gas that's over 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. Several studies have found a link between fracking and the global rise in methane emissions. During just one week in January 2019 at the Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire, a research team found that 4.2 tonnes of methane was leaked into the air, with an environmental impact of 142 transatlantic flights.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) recommended that the moratorium on UK shale production shouldn't be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact, which the government hasn't done. As noted by the CCC, fracking can increase global greenhouse gas emissions even if shale gas has a marginally lower carbon footprint than imported LNG. This is because fracking increases the global supply and consumption of gas, leading to an overall increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.
Fracking is incompatible with the UK’s goal to limit global heating to 1.5C. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) net zero by 2050 report – which was commissioned by UK COP26 President Alok Sharma – found that all new oil and gas developments are inconsistent with their 1.5C pathway. The IEA’s Executive Director Fatih Birol said "if governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now."
What are the health and environmental risks of fracking?
Can fracking contaminate groundwater?
Fracking risks contaminating groundwater, according to the British Geological Survey: "groundwater may be potentially contaminated by extraction of shale gas both from the constituents of shale gas itself, from the formulation and deep injection of water containing a cocktail of additives used for hydraulic fracturing and from flowback water which may have a high content of saline formation water."
A 2016 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency found scientific evidence that fracking can impact drinking water resources under many different circumstances.
What are the public health risks of fracking?
In the UK in 2014, 18 leading medical experts (including a former Government Deputy Chief Medical Officer and a former Chair of the Royal College of GPs) wrote to the British Medical Journal , stating that "the arguments against fracking on public health grounds are overwhelming", including the risks of producing "hazardous levels of air and water pollution that can have adverse impacts on health".
The peer-reviewed scientific literature linking fracking with risks to human health has continued to develop and strengthen since the fracking moratorium was imposed in 2019. For example:
The authors of a study published in 2022 concluded: "we find consistent and robust evidence that drilling shale gas wells negatively impacts both drinking water quality and infant health."
A 2022 Harvard study found that people aged over 65 who lived closest to fracking well sites had a 2.5% greater risk of premature death than those who didn’t live near well pads.
A 2021 paper looking at adjoining regions of Pennsylvania (where fracking is allowed) and New York state (where it is not) found that middle-aged men and older men and women who live in areas with a high concentration of fracking wells are at higher risk of heart attacks.
Would fracking create lots of green jobs in the UK?
It's very unlikely that fracking will create large numbers of jobs as geological constraints and widespread local opposition make it highly improbable that a full-scale fracking industry could take off in England. What’s more, any jobs that would be created wouldn't be long lasting as the UK needs to rapidly reduce the consumption and production of gas to reach net zero emissions.
On the flipside, investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency create more jobs than fossil fuels for every million dollars spent on them, according to a 2021 study by the World Resource Institute:
- Investing in home energy efficiency creates 2.8 times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels.
- Investing in solar panels creates 1.5 times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels.
- Investing in wind energy creates 1.2 times as many jobs as investing in fossil fuels.
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