It is just shy of three years since the UK Government announced it was withdrawing its support for shale gas extraction or fracking.
It is an understatement to say that much has changed in those three years, with the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, both of which have had major ramifications on the global energy market.
Change keeps coming. There is a quote reported to be from Lenin that says “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” For the UK this last week has been one of those weeks. Change is happening at a rapid pace. The country has both a new Prime Minister and King in a week. It is unprecedented times.
Liz Truss, the new Prime Minister, also signaled change last week when she ripped up the Conservative government’s moratorium on fracking as part of an energy strategy to tackle the cost of living crisis and huge gas prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“We will end the moratorium on extracting our huge reserves of shale which could get gas flowing as soon as six months where there is local support for it.”
Then in the Conservative party manifesto, the party promised “not to support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.”
The pro-fracking pledge was included in an announcement that also included opening up the North Sea for further drilling. None of these announcements will do anything to ease bills and will only exacerbate our climate crisis. It was also a massive U-turn on the last Conservative election manifesto which pledged “not to support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.”
Truss won’t be the first or last politician to make a U-turn on a policy announcement. On the one hand, a pro-fracking, pro-fossil fuel announcement from Truss is hardly surprising. She is a hard core libertarian prime minister, far to the right of her predecessors, including Boris Johnson, Teressa May, and David Cameron.
She is ideologically joined at the hip to the network of neoliberal think-tanks that are just around the corner from Westminster, notably the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the Adam Smith Institute, and Centre for Policy Studies. These groups have long pushed climate denial in the UK and been critical of Net Zero pledges by Government.
Truss is particularly close to the IEA, having known its director for 25 years, appeared at many of its events and hired its ex-Comms director, who will now follow her into Number 10. It is hardly surprising, as if night follows day, that some of these groups have publicly been supportive of her pro-fracking announcement last week.
It is worth pausing for a moment though. While everything has changed in the geopolitics of the global energy system since the UK’s ban three years ago, nothing has changed in geology. According to its press release in 2019, the Government ended support for fracking in the UK on the basis of new scientific analysis. This new evidence concluded, “that it is not possible with current technology to accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking.”
The announcement came after operations at the fracking site in Preston New Road, Lancashire were suspended after a magnitude 2.9 event was recorded in August 2019.
As the Guardian noted at the time, a new report by the semi independent Oil and Gas Authority warned it was not possible to rule out “unacceptable” consequences for those living near fracking sites and it “was not possible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes fracking might trigger.”
As I wrote about it back in 2019: The industry always said that fracking was not only safe but also precise. The geological equivalent of key-hole surgery. But this was always a lie. I have always said it is a brutal technique, with unpredictable consequences. Oil services giant, Schlumberger, once described it as employing “brute force and ignorance.”
Just days before the UK Government announcement, there was an article run by Bloomberg entitled: “After Decades of Fracking, We Finally Know How the Fluid Spreads Underground”. The article reveals just how much uncertainty and risk is involved.
One analysis confirmed “what many oilfield engineers have feared but couldn’t prove: a typical frack comes with lots of uncertainty—and bears little resemblance to the ideal.”
Fracking failed in Lancashire then, and it will fail again. One thing that Truss has clearly failed to understand is at least seven fundamental problems with fracking.
Firstly, the climate science tells us that to have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, we must stop drilling for new oil and gas. The Climate Change Committee has said fracking for shale gas on a significant scale is not compatible with the UK’s climate targets.
Secondly, beyond the climate issues, fracking comes with major health and ecological risks.
Thirdly, the UK has a population density of 640 people per square mile, compared to the US which has a population density of 80 people per square mile.
Fourthly, the UK has far more complicated geology than the vast frack fields in the US and that’s why companies which tried to frack before, like Cuadrilla, kept getting complications with earthquakes. Add complicated geology to the high density factor and that means fracking will happen close to people’s homes and it’s a recipe for disaster.
Fifthly, fracking remains unpopular: An article in the Financial Times earlier today noted that “The reality is that the public attitude to fracking is so dire.” A recent poll found that only a third of people supported fracking compared with 74 to 81 percent for wind and solar.
Sixthly, something that is often overlooked is fracking is not like conventional drilling. So to keep production high, more and more wells need to be drilled. For example, one analysis in the US found that the vast Bakken fracking field needed 1,400 new wells a year just to keep production stable. The higher production rose, the more new wells that were needed to maintain it.
And lastly, even if you could frack safely in the UK, Dr. Stuart Gilfillan, one expert at the University of Edinburgh, recently said, “the lack of facilities to safely treat waste fluids produced by the fracking process remains a key showstopper to UK shale gas plans.” Like nuclear, we have no where to treat the waste.
One of the people impacted by Cuadrilla’s operations back in 2019 was Susan Holliday, whose home is barely 300 meters from the fracking site. Speaking recently to the Guardian newspaper, she recalls the moment a 2.9-magnitude earth tremor hit her house. “It was frightening. I personally felt seven or eight of these earth tremors and it’s quite a scary situation to live in – and to think that could start off all over the country.”
Cuadrilla has predictably welcomed Truss’s announcement and promised “to ensure this industry can start generating results as soon as possible.” But the geology hasn’t changed, the community resistance has only grown and our climate emergency which tells us fracking is not the answer has only gotten worse.
Indeed, experts, scientists, activists, NGO’s, and even Truss’s own MPs, believe that fracking will fail in the UK. Tina Louise Rothery, one of the wonderful “Nanas” who fought Cuadrilla for years in a David and Goliath battle, said last week that the community was ready to “pull out all the stops” to stop fracking going ahead.
“It won’t just be frontline stuff. We will oppose this with legal challenges, planning applications. We will pull out all the stops,” she says. “And this time we won’t settle for a moratorium either. We’re just going to keep on hammering this until we get the proper ban on fracking,” she told the Guardian.
Another Nana, Julie Daniels, 62, adds: “Liz Truss has no idea what she’s talking about. She thinks we’re going to be pumping gas within six months – what ignorance.”
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for Fylde, whose constituency includes where Cuadrilla was trying to frack, has now written to Truss to make clear the area was “entirely unsuitable” to future drilling, pointing out that the “last seismic event here was 250 times the industry-agreed safe limits” and that “It has been demonstrated without doubt the geology here is not suitable.”
Other politicians have voiced opposition too. Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion has called Truss’ decision “a massive kick in the teeth for [the] vast majority of communities who don’t want fracking, a disaster for our climate, and a measure that will make absolutely zero difference to the cost of energy bills.”
Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey adds, “the government should be focusing its attention on solar and wind power the cheapest and most popular forms of energy. Alongside insulation, investment in renewable power is the best way to bring down energy prices and protect Britain’s energy supply in the long term.”
Civil society is also opposed. My colleague, Silje Lundberg, last week argued that fracking “will make the climate crisis worse and further entrench the UK’s dependence on the very same fossil fuels that are at the heart of the current social and economic crisis.”
Silje argues that “there is an urgent need for sensible short term solutions for energy efficiency in homes, reducing non-essential energy use, and accelerating the rollout of readily available alternatives to replace fossil gas and oil. More fossil fuels is not the solution to a fossil fueled crisis.”
Mike Childs, head of Science, Policy, and Research at Friends of the Earth, castigates the plan for doing “nothing to tackle the root cause of the energy crisis – our reliance on costly, polluting fossil fuels – and only lines the pockets of the oil and gas companies driving the cost of living and climate emergencies.” Childs adds that “To bring down bills for good, we need a street-by-street insulation programme targeted at the neighbourhoods where most homes are poorly insulated.”
Nor are all the home nations agreed. Fracking might now happen in England or Scotland but not Wales. The Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford has insisted the fracking ban in Wales remains in place, despite Truss’ comments.
After the announcement key academics lined up to warn that fracking would not work in the UK and undermine climate goals too.
Professor Jim Watson, Professor of Energy Policy and Director, UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, argues that any moves to frack “are unlikely to have a significant impact on energy bills, especially in the short term and that “It is essential that any new developments are compatible with statutory carbon budgets and targets. He warns: “there is huge uncertainty about the economic viability of fracking, and it may take a long time to produce relatively small amounts of gas.”
Professor Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London, agrees: “There was huge hype about fracking a decade ago, but over the subsequent decade it delivered almost nothing across Europe.“
Another expert on fracking, Professor Stuart Haszeldine, from the University of Edinburgh, says: “Fracking the UK is very high commercial risk, as the geology is wrong …Analyses of the shales recovered whilst drilling for fracking in Lancashire showed the wrong type of shale and no oil or gas present.”
Haszeldine continues: “Producing more methane gas by fracking sends the UK climate ambition backwards” and adds that “Fracking is a good contribution to climate suicide.”
Meanwhile expert after expert continues to say what the solution is and always has been: energy efficiency, insulating homes, and renewable energy.
They are not alone: Charmaine Coutinho, a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology‘s Energy Panel, outlines how: “In tackling the energy crisis, it is not just about energy supply, but also a reduction in demand is needed.”
Coutinho continues: “The simplest and quickest way to address this, is a focus on energy efficiency, as not only would this reduce our need for energy, and hence energy bills for everyone, but improved standards of home insulation are also an important enabler of transitioning from fossil fuels to heat pumps for domestic heating.”
Other experts agree too. In a damning recent report, the Institute for Government found the UK’s housing stocks rank among the worst in Europe for its energy efficiency. The Institute said the country was “paying the price for a decade of policy failure on energy policy” adding “The government should do more to address the UK’s energy efficiency problems – or risk finding itself in an even more difficult position next year over rising energy bills.”
“Energy efficiency is a giant hole in Liz Truss’s energy plan,” says Tom Sasse, Associate Director at the Institute. “Announcing a national mission to boost energy efficiency – learning from successes abroad – could make a real difference in reducing the pain coming for households and businesses.”
Even the Conservative-supporting Telegraph newspaper is making the same point too:
"A major programme to reduce energy use, centred around better insulation, could reduce aggregate household energy costs by £27bn as soon as next year" ??@benjaminmarlow in @Telegraph ?https://t.co/0ybGbtgPl6
— Joe Tetlow (@TetlowTweets) September 13, 2022