Despite former Prime Minister David Cameron’s fervent efforts to promote extensive onshore shale gas extraction, the UK fracking industry is struggling to take off seven years after a minor incident triggered by exploration activities near Blackpool. The nation remains divided over this environmentally invasive – but potentially lucrative – project.
What is fracking
Hydraulic fracturing, known as ‘fracking’ refers to the method of extracting unconventional gas reserves from impermeable shale rock. It involves vertical and horizontal drilling – as deep as three kilometres – followed by the insertion of a perforated well casing, through which large volumes of water – containing sand and lubricating fluids – are then injected under high pressure. On the surface, a wellhead is installed to capture the gas released through the process.
The push for fracking
Under Cameron, the Government initiated an ‘All out for Shale’ campaign, vigorously promoting the onshore extraction of shale gas, to increase the UK’s energy self-sufficiency. At the American Fuel and Petrochemicals Manufacturers’ annual conference in March 2018, fracking champion Cameron lamented the ‘painfully slow fracking progress in the UK’ as compared to tens of thousands of wells successfully drilled and exploited in the US over the past decade.
Pro-fracking arguments range from the pressing need to increase the UK’s energy independence, to the overall industrial boost a fracking revolution could lead to. According to Government calculations, fracking would allow the UK to cover its energy needs for the next 50 years (at current consumption levels) if only 10% of the estimated 1300tn cubic feet of gas reserves are extracted. These are enticing figures, that may overshadow any skeptical voices, as they forecast a major step towards energy independence.
On the other hand, notable environmental hazards have already been recorded in the US ‘fracking revolution’, and one needn’t venture too far for evidence of impact: in 2011, a minor earthquake was triggered near Blackpool by the activities of shale gas explorer Cuadrilla. After this incident, the company had to wait six years to secure another planning permission at another potential fracking site in Lancashire. Other hazards highlighted by anti-fracking activist movements such as ‘Reclaim the Power’, are the contamination of domestic water supplies through fracking liquids. The communities concerned by this agenda are mostly in Northern England and the Midlands. Beyond the environmental concerns, the fact that these areas are overwhelmingly unspoiled countryside is likely to have motivated its critics.
According to analysis conducted by Friends of the Earth from the Cardiff Business School, over 5000 wells would need to be drilled and fracked between 2021 and 2035 to replace 50% of current gas imports, which would result in the industrialisation of large parts of unspoiled English countryside.
The controversy and uncertainty surrounding fracking has prompted France to ban the activity, and the devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have followed suit. According to Scotland’s Energy Minister Paul Wheelhouse, ‘allowing fracking would undermine the government’s ambitions to deeply cut Scotland’s climate emissions’.
Even at a national level, there are clear divisions. The Cameron government’s eagerness to push for fracking is in stark contrast to the current government’s ‘more neutral’ stance, with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy describing shale gas as a “potential element of the energy mix”.
One of the most prominent arguments brought forth by fracking defendants is the threat of excessive reliance on Russia to satisfy the UK’s gas needs. Francis Egan, Cuadrilla’s CEO, argues that ‘developing an indigenous source of natural gas is critical for UK energy security, our economy, jobs and the environment.’ On 16 March 2018, The Sun reported that “we are relying on Russia, a hostile power, to heat our homes”.
But how much gas does the UK actually import from Russia and how could a national fracking boom impact incoming flows? According to government statistics, Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments to the UK are a new phenomenon, that account for less than 1% of total gas imports since January 2018 – which is by no means a full-blown reliance on Russian gas.
Although production from the North Sea has been in decline since 2000, most of the UK’s gas imports come via pipelines from the Norwegian sector of the North Sea. In fact, these pipelines accounted for 45% of imports in 2017. LNG shipments, which make up roughly 8% of supplies, hail predominantly from Qatar. Importing gas via pipelines has been proven more cost-efficient than liquifying, shipping and re-gasifying supplies from further afield. Hence, Norwegian imports have increased proportionally to the decline in domestic production, and the necessary costly infrastructure (pipelines) is already in place. Likewise, Professor Jim Watson from the UK Energy Research Centre states that “we might have had more domestic gas through UK fracking, but it might not have been cost-competitive compared with imports”.
To conclude, it is justified to wonder whether the eagerness to imitate the US shale gas boom is clouding the central government’s judgment. Although energy security is vital, not only to a nation’s economic survival, but also to households maintaining comfort during cold winters, the government needs to do some serious myth busting to ensure its aspirations of restored domestic grandeur don’t trump the consideration of environmental hazards.
Caroline Burleigh is Head of the Identities Programme at Agora.