The UK lifted its ban on fracking, bringing to light a longstanding debate

The derrick is seen behind the anti-fracking banners at the Lancashire fracking site of Cuadrilla.

Christopher Furlong | Getty Images

LONDON – The UK government lifted the fracking ban on Thursday, citing the need to increase domestic energy supplies following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In her first major speech on September 8, the new Prime Minister Liz Truss said that the end of the ban on the extraction of “huge reserves of shale …

The ban was introduced in November 2019 after several tremors were recorded and eventually a 2.9 magnitude earthquake near the UK’s only active fracking site in the English county of Lancashire. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, chemicals and sand into the earth’s cracks at high pressure, widening them to allow for the extraction of oil or, in the case of the UK, gas from shale formations. Locals were concerned about the connection – nearly 200 reported damage to their homes in the earthquake – and made their items known aloud.

Although anything below magnitude 3 is considered a small earthquake and is relatively common, a government report in 2019 concluded that it was necessary to ban the practice as “at the time it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of the earthquakes. earthquakes linked to fracking operations “.

But Truss, and his new head of business and energy Jacob Rees-Mogg, insist that fracking will play a key role in making Britain a net energy exporter by 2040. They also want to increase oil production. and gas in the North Sea, announcing a new oil and gas exploration license Thursday, as well as offshore hydrogen, solar and wind deployment.

Divided opinions

Truss’s promise that the fractured gas could power homes and businesses within six months comes from an estimate by the Lancashire site operator Cuadrilla of how long it would take to restart operations.

However, the requirement of “local support” could push him much further back, or even indefinitely.

Support for fracking among the general population increased during the energy crisis, according to polling firm YouGov, but it was only 27% in May; while there are organized campaign groups that oppose fracking in the UK that to say they are ready for action.

The Scottish and Welsh decentralized governments and the opposition Labor Party are also officially opposed to fracking. So are several conservative party politicians in power, including Mark Menzies, member of parliament for the Lancashire area where the Cuadrilla site is located. On hearing the ban was lifted, he said it had been “proven beyond doubt that the geology here is not suitable.”

Even the person who now holds the kingdoms of the British economy, Finance Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, publicly stated until February, that fracking would do nothing to cushion people from rising gas and electricity prices and that it would take “a decade to extract sufficient volumes” as it came “at a high cost to communities and our precious campaigns “.

The division

A 2020 review by the Warwick Business School estimated that fracked gas could account for between 17% and 22% of the UK’s energy consumption between 2020 and 2050.

However, According to the London School of Economics, it is unclear how much shale gas (gas extracted from shale formations, clay-rich areas marked for fracking potential) there is in the UK that is technically and economically feasible to extract.

A past study found that shale gas operations themselves would contribute relatively little to greenhouse gas emissions. Critics argue that the problem is instead the need to reduce the UK’s dependence on natural gas more broadly, which currently accounts for around 40% of the UK’s energy consumption, and that there should be a focus on maintaining fuels. polluting fossils in the subsoil.

Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth also cite reports warning that fracking could “potentially contaminate” groundwater due to the chemicals used in the process; noise and industrialization in quiet rural areas will increase; uses large amounts of water; and risks further earthquakes of unpredictable frequency and strength.

Cuadrilla says the clay at his site is “very good” for fracking and that he will conduct daily seismic monitoring if operations resume. He also says that polyacrylamide, the chemical he uses, has been rated by the Environment Agency as not dangerous to groundwater and forms 0.05% of the frack fluid.

A report commissioned by the government in April and released Thursday found that it was not yet possible to accurately predict geological activity following fracking operations in the UK. But in a 2019 reversal of its stance, the government now says more sites will need to be drilled to investigate further, while Rees-Mogg told the BBC this week that the government will seek to increase the level of allowed seismic activity at the sites. fracking in the future.

Commercial feasibility

Investors certainly see the potential for a restart of operations, with shares in onshore oil and gas company Egdon Resources – listed on the UK’s Alternative Investment Market – up 6.3% on Thursday and 365% this year. .

However, analysts say many obstacles remain, not least regulation, environmental concerns and operational complexities. I am four main areas identified as potentially viable for shale gas extraction and more than 100 sites have obtained exploration licenses for fracking, but these still need permits from various regulatory bodies to progress further, along with political support.

“While currently high energy prices may improve the potential economic viability of fracking in the UK, it may be less certain in the long term,” Tobias Wagner, Moody’s senior credit officer, told CNBC.

“It remains to be seen to what extent companies are willing to invest on a large scale given the uncertainties and concerns,” he said.

This combination of environmental concerns and logistical difficulties means that fracking has never been lifted in Europe and fracking bans remain in many countries, including Germany – although this too is now under discussion – France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Bulgaria and Republic of Ireland.

John Underhill, a professor at the University of Aberdeen and director of energy transition, told CNBC that in addition to the difficulties of winning over public opinion, UK geology is another obstacle to fracking.

He published research in 2020 on Cuadrilla’s Bowland Shale that found that shale gas exploitation was “technically very challenging” and that its drilling targets had subsurface faults that would have led to a trend towards seismic activity.

He added that the geology of the UK is very different from the US, where energy independence has been achieved largely through increased oil and gas fracking and where shale horizons are uninterrupted by faults and run for dozens. of miles in uninhabited open space.

“Although large resource estimates are often cited, shale gas reserves will only be a fraction of these figures due to poor shale quality, lack of overpressure, and the discontinuous nature of the shale horizons themselves,” Underhill said.

And with a surprise blow to the pro-fracking movement, Chris Cornelius – the geologist who founded Cuadrilla and has since left the company – shared a similar view in the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday, arguing that obstacles to “technical feasibility” and economic “and” alignment around the scale “make him skeptical that there will ever be significant levels of shale gas extraction in the UK.