21 September 2021

About fracking time! The Government must revisit its shale moratorium


I spotted something was up a week ago.

‘Welcome to British Gas’ said an email in my inbox. ‘Recently PFP Energy stopped trading and Ofgem, the industry regulator, asked us to take over the supply of energy to your home.’ My supply will not be cut off but from now on my tariff will be much higher. 

Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, has been holding crisis meetings. To give you a sense of the problem, wholesale gas prices are up 250% since January – with a 70% rise since August. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy last year 60% of our natural gas was imported. There are claims that Gazprom – the Russian state-backed monopoly – is partly responsible. Just to compound matters, a prolonged period of weak wind has meant less energy than hoped coming from all those windfarms – proof if it were needed of how unreliable the technology remains.

There are other knock-on effects from the high price of gas, not least a shortage of carbon dioxide, which could cause more disruption in supply chains already struggling due to a lack of lorry drivers. The problem here is that CO2 is a by-product of fertiliser productions and the fertiliser manufacturers have opted to halt production due to the soaring gas prices.

What makes all this so exasperating is it could all have been avoided. The Government made a disastrous decision two years ago to ban fracking. At the time Kwarteng promised the decision would ‘not in any way impact our energy supply’. The ban was brought in on the most spurious of grounds, namely a report which had ‘found that it is not currently possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations’.

The Conservative manifesto for the general election the following month stated:

‘We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect. Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.’ 

If there were any doubt, that pledge made abundantly clear that this was a decision based not on science, but cold electoral calculation. Granted, public support for shale gas extraction had been falling, but it very much depended on how you worded the question. Take this Populus poll back in 2014, which had the following preamble:

‘Natural gas from shale is found both onshore and offshore, typically a mile or more underground. Producing natural gas from shale uses a technique called hydraulic fracturing (often called fracking). This involves creating tiny fractures in the rock deep underground, freeing the gas. Fractures are created by pumping a fluid containing 99.5% water and sand and 0.5% approved non-hazardous chemicals down at high pressure.

‘The British Geological Survey has estimated that the UK has 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from shale. If just 10% of this could be recovered, it would be enough to meet the UK’s demand for natural gas for nearly 50 years or to heat the UK’s homes for over 100 years. From what you know, do you think the UK should produce natural gas from shale?’

Not surprisingly, after that explanation 57% of respondents said ‘Yes’ and only 16% ‘No’. What a contrast to the 2019 poll from YouGov, without a detailed preamble, which found only 14% were favourable to fracking and 67% unfavourable – this at a time when Tory MPs were campaigning vociferously against any drilling in their constituencies.

We can guess what caused the change. Earthquakes are scary. If campaigners warn that allowing fracking means being buried in the rubble of your home then taking such a risk would not be attractive. But rather than give in to such scaremongering it would be better to have the political leadership to repudiate it. Such fears are absurdly exaggerated. ‘Tremors’ would be a more accurate description of what sometimes happens with fracking – the equivalent of a lorry driving past your house.

This is backed up by a report from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering, which states that:

‘There is an emerging consensus that the magnitude of seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing would be no greater than 3 ML (felt by few people and resulting in negligible, if any, surface impacts). Recent seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing in the UK was of magnitude 2.3 ML and 1.5 ML (unlikely to be felt by anyone).’

Nor do we need to rely on scientific estimates. Fracking and shale are often terms that are used synonymously, but hydraulic fracturing is a technology that has been used in the UK for non-shale oil and gas industries for many years. We get an average of 15 magnitude-2.3 ‘earthquakes’ a year, none of which cause any damage beyond, just possibly, an object falling off a shelf – and only some of those are even caused by fracking.

If you needed further proof of just how unthreatening these tremors are, bear in mind that since the 16th century only 11 people have died in the UK from earthquakes and the last death was in 1940.

In the United States, there has been substantial production of shale oil and shale gas since 2011 and, surprise, surprise, zero evidence of any earthquake-related fatalities. What has happened as a result of fracking has been a precipitous fall in US gas prices, which has boosted manufacturing and cut domestic energy bills. What’s more, the Shale Revolution has also helped America reduce its carbon emissions.

It’s not just in the States either. In Canada and Argentina, shale production has been building up over roughly the same period. Again, there have been no earthquake deaths in Canada from any cause and only one in Argentina, unrelated to fracking.

It’s clear that lifting the ban on shale energy here would not cause any plausible risk of earthquake deaths – but it would certainly prevent deaths from hypothermia. At the moment excess winter deaths in England and Wales average around 25,000 a year and hypothermia is ‘the primary cause of cold-related death’, according to one government analysis – and it’s not unreasonable to assume that not being able to afford to heat their homes is a significant contributor to many of those deaths. Shale could bring the cost of doing so down significantly, but at the moment we are staring down the barrel of sharp energy price increases.

Sadly it is too late for this winter. But we can rectify the matter for the future. If we want to give family finances a leg-up, support British manufacturing and save lives, it’s time to get fracking. 

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.