The growing possibility of fracking being revived in the UK has drawn a mixed response from energy analysts and think tanks.
Liz Truss is widely expected to lift the moratorium on fracking within days, as the new Prime Minister is eager to ramp up domestic energy generation to meet the country’s consumption needs.
This is an increasingly urgent issue amid sustained fears of supply shortages this winter and spiralling energy bills, with the price cap set to rise to an eye-watering £3,549 per year in October.
Kathryn Porter, energy consultant at Watt Logic told City A.M. she was in favour of easing requirements concerning tremor limits, which she believed should cap seismic activity to 2.5 on the Richter scale for fracking.
This would be in line with geothermal drilling, and significantly higher than the current limits at 0.5 on the scale.
However, she was unsure if there were sufficient supplies that could be affordably extracted to meet domestic energy demand.
She said: “There are good reasons to believe that there are meaningful qualities of shale gas in Britain – the question is can it be extracted economically, and this is uncertain. We will only know if we allow exploratory drilling to re-start. I believe we should make every effort to increase domestic gas production, and properly evaluate the potential for shale gas.”
The analyst warned the UK remained “decades away” from phasing out fossil fuels, meaning gas and oil that could be produced domestically without relying on overseas vendors would remain attractive for security and environmental reasons.
Porter concluded: “Increasing production is the only credible way out of the current crisis, only a global increase in output to replace Russian gas will bring down prices. Whether British shale gas production can contribute to this is unclear, but it certainly won’t if we don’t re-start exploration.”
Energy sector split over fracking’s viability
Fracking involves injecting a water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into boreholes deep underground to fracture rock and release shale gas.
Firms are drawing up plans to offer people discounts of up to 25 per cent off their energy bills in communities where shale gas is extracted, as first reported in The Daily Mail.
Jacob Rees Mogg, who is expected to be named Business Secretary by the new administration in Downing Street, is also sympathetic to requests for planning reforms to ramp up projects across the county.
John Macdonald, Director of Strategy at the Adam Smith Institute, a free market think tank, described the latest media reports of a revival in fracking as “welcome” and “encouraging news for Britons who are struggling with their energy bills.”
He believed it could bring down domestic wholesale prices in the longer term and benefit millions of people.
Commenting on the prospect of community opposition, Macdonald said: “Where there is local concern, companies should be able to offer direct financial support.”
Chris Venables, head of politics at Green Alliance, offered a more critical stance on the looming prospect of fracking, citing its unpopularity and considering it less of a priority than insulation and ramping up renewables.
He said: “Fracking the English countryside is deeply unpopular among local communities and isn’t the solution to rising energy bills. It won’t ever meaningfully improve security of supply and will cause even more destruction to our environment. The new prime minister should be prioritising a nationwide home insulation programme and the huge expansion of renewables to get the UK off gas.”
This was echoed by Jack Richardson at the Conservative Environment Network.
The networking group’s senior climate programme manager spoke against claims it was a “silver bullet” for the UK’s energy needs.
He noted that China has more shale gas and has still failed to produce a fracking boom, despite the lack of local obstruction to projects in the country.
In the UK, he believed it would be likely bogged down by issues over planning rights, property rights and geological concerns.
Richardson said: “I think there is just barrier after barrier, even if you lift the moratorium. Even if we overcame those barriers, it’s nowhere near as fast or as popular as renewables. We haven’t really got a fracking industry here, but we’ve got one of the most advanced renewables industries in the world.”
Fracking’s unlikely revival follows years of stagnation
A moratorium was imposed on fracking in 2019 amid concerns over tremors by the Oil and Gas Authority (now named North Sea Transition Authority).
The Conservative Party manifesto in December 2019 said the party “will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically it can be done safely”.
Earlier this year, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) ordered Cuadrilla to plug the two remaining shale wells.
However, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NSTA gave fracking a reprieve – pausing its plugging requirement – before the Government decided to conduct a scientific survey on the practice to assess whether the process could be made safer.
This was undertaken by BGS, which handed in its report to the Government earlier this summer, providing advice on the latest scientific evidence around shale gas extraction.
A decision was expected this summer, however Boris Johnson’s resignation has delayed proceedings.
During the hustings campaign, Truss said she was in favour of fracking provided it was supported by local communities.
Charles McAllister, Director of Policy at industry body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) argued that shale gas could play a vital role in meeting the country’s energy needs.
He said: “Shale gas can deliver more energy per acre per year than most other domestic energy sources. The extraction of shale gas from the abundant Bowland-Hodder shale formation under the North of England offers increased energy security, tens of thousands of well paid and skilled jobs, tax revenue and a lower carbon footprint gas supply.”
UKOOG has pointed to estimates from the British Geological Survey there could be as much as 37.6tn cubic metres of shale gas under the ground.
If ten per cent was recoverable, it argues this would be enough to help meet the country’s energy needs for the next five decades.
McAllister also contested claims fracking was unpopular, citing YouGov data which suggested a majority of households in Northern England would back fracking in their local area if they got money off energy bills.
The policy director believed this could be achieved through a community benefits scheme, a benefit not provided by overseas imports which the UK would otherwise relies on.
He concluded: “The failure to develop the UK’s onshore natural gas resources offers unacceptable economic, environmental and geopolitical risks to the UK.”