Government paves way to end fracking moratorium with new survey
The government has announced a survey into fracking ahead of the unveiling of its energy strategy, which is expected to be published on Thursday.
Downing Street has commissioned the British Geological Society (BGS) to advise on the latest scientific evidence around shale gas extraction.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed a moratorium on fracking in 2019, following concerns over tremors and years of protests over the practice.
Fracking involves pumping water, chemicals and sand underground at high pressure to fracture shale rock and release trapped oil and gas.
The practice was effectively ruled out following a report from the Oil and Gas Authority – now known as the North Sea Transition Authority – which concluded it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.
BGS will now investigate whether there have been new developments in the science of hydraulic fracturing, which will ensure the safety of process and its viability to produce alternative energy supplies for the UK.
In particular, the government wants to establish whether there are new techniques in use which could reduce the risk and magnitude of seismic events.
The group will compare the potential seismicity caused by fracturing compares to other forms of underground energy production, such as geothermal, coal mining, or surface activities such as construction.
BGS will also assess whether there are other sites, outside of Lancashire, which might be at a lower risk of seismic activity.
Its report is expected before the end of June 2022.
Government opens door to fracking as Johnson pushes to boost domestic energy supplies
Fracking’s revival has gone from strength to strength in recent weeks, with the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) offering the sector a reprieve last week – delaying its demand for Cuadrilla to plug and abandon its two shale wells in Lancashire.
It has now given the company until July 2023 to evaluate whether Cuadrilla can extract gas safely from the sites.
Cuadrilla told City A.M. earlier this year that concerns over tremors were overstated, and would have been solvable with government support.
The company also suggested there could be as much as 37.6tn cubic metres of shale gas underground across the country.
If ten per cent was recoverable, it argues this could meet the UK’s energy needs for 50 years.
This is especially appealing to the government, as its upcoming energy strategy will focus on boosting domestic energy supplies to reduce its dependence on overseas energy.
Plans include boosting solar power capacity from 14 gigawatts (GW) to 50GW, offshore wind from 11GW to 50GW, onshore wind from 15GW to 30GW, and nuclear power from 7GW to 16GW, according to The Financial Times.
The issue is increasingly urgent issue for Johnson amid spiralling energy bills and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The UK is currently embroiled in a deepening energy crisis, with household bills rising to nearly £2,000 per year, with expectations of a further hike this winter.
Fracking is highly unlikely to be included in tomorrow’s plans despite the latest boost for the sector.
However, it could be featured in future proposals if the practice is deemed safe.
Charles McAllister, policy manager at UK Onshore Oil and Gas said: “Developing UK shale gas resources can reduce gas prices, reduce our carbon footprint by replacing imports, improve our balance of payments and the country’s tax revenues, alongside job creation in areas where they are most needed, as part of the government’s levelling up agenda.
Andy Mayer, energy analyst at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argued fracking could significantly reduce the UK’s reliance on overseas imports – which make up around half of the country’s natural gas supplies.
He told City A.M.: “The UK needs gas, we either frack or import. These are the choices, with North Sea reserves a small fraction of the potential onshore. If we frack, we tax, and use the money to pay for the low carbon transition. If we import, we fund Russian tanks through the EU interconnectors. The economic and moral choice is to frack.”
However, Tom Fyans, director of campaigns and policy of countryside charity CPRE, slammed plans for a further review as an “absurd decision”.
He argued it would “provoke fury and despair within any community threatened by a potential fracking site in their neighbourhood”
Commenting on its viability as an energy source, Fyans said: ‘To be clear, fracking would make no difference whatsoever to the energy crisis our country currently faces. It would take years for any gas to be pumped from the ground – and, far from lowering household bills, that gas would simply be sold for sky high rates on the global market. “
Kwarteng remains sceptical over value of fracking
The potential revival of fracking follows reported splits in the cabinet over the UK’s energy strategy – which has seen it being delayed for multiple weeks prior to this Thursday’s expected unveiling.
Alongside rows over nuclear power and onshore wind, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has remained circumspect over the potential benefits of fracking.
This was reflected in his accompanying statement, alongside the latest announcement.
He said: “We have always been, and always will be, guided by the science on shale gas. It remains the case that fracking in England would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of gas could be produced for the market, and would certainly have no effect on prices in the near term.”
While he recognised that, in “light of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine”, it was “absolutely right” the UK explored all potential domestic energy sources, he warned the moratorium would not be lifted unless there was compelling evidence to change government policy.
Kwarteng concluded: “Unless the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that shale gas extraction is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby, the pause in England will remain in place.”
Earlier this year, he outlined his concerns over the practice on Twitter – suggesting it would have no affect on energy prices – and has stressed the need for community consent in the process.