Lewis Preston is Chief of Staff to Elliot Colburn MP. He was a senior researcher for Lee Rowley, now BEIS minister, who established the APPG on Fracking.
Last summer, in a discreet corner of North Derbyshire, residents of Marsh Lane and the nearby historic mining town of Eckington quietly celebrated what they thought was the final victory in the battle to stop fracking in their community.
On 16 August, planning permission for exploratory drilling for shale gas in Marsh Lane finally lapsed without a single spade in the ground, two years after permission was granted, and almost half a decade since the plans were first mooted.
After a combination of fracking-induced earthquakes in Little Plumpton, Lancashire, and an unrelenting campaign from Parliamentarians, campaign groups and members of the public, a moratorium was imposed on hydraulic fracturing in England by the Government in 2019.
Following the fuel crisis in September, global gas supply shortages, energy price hikes and a cost of living squeeze, it was inevitable that the dead debate on fracking would be resurrected. It was reported recently that Jacob Rees-Mogg was urging colleagues to re-explore fracking, and multiple commentators are starting to throw the suggestion around again.
It’s not difficult to imagine the sense of dread that residents of Marsh Lane, Eckington or Little Plumpton feel as the biggest threat to their communities is unearthed and discussed again in Parliament and the press, so soon after the debate had been buried in the first place.
Two years since the moratorium, and despite the energy concerns we are currently experiencing, there still remains no convincing market or practical arguments for fracking in the UK.
Firstly, there is no reliable assessment or understanding of how much shale gas is in the UK or how much of it could be extracted. Nor has there been any assessment of the cost and impact of extracting it.
A recent study by Cardiff Business School estimated that the UK would need to drill between 4,000 – 30,000 fracking wells to replace all gas imports. This is heavily dependent on the geology, however; the only fracking operations to take place in the UK were unviable because of the seismic activity they generated, and one of the last exploratory shale operations to take place in the UK (in Barnby Moor near Worksop) failed to locate substantial amounts of shale gas.
The sheer level of infrastructure and activity for each fracking site would also have huge cumulative impacts. This isn’t a quick drill and drop operation. We are talking about thousands of vehicle movements, removal of street furniture, a 60 metre drill, acres of land, the erection of buildings and huge lighting fixtures, as well as the installation of pipelines (the extent of which has not been estimated) and a decommissioning operation (the cost of which, a recent House of Commons Committee report suggested, could fall into the lap of taxpayers), as well as much, much more.
All of this for just for one fracking site. Multiply this by the 30,000 potentially needed and it paints an unrealistic picture of monstrous state intervention and cumulative impacts. It’s easy to call for fracking now to solve the energy price hikes, but it’s just not realistic.
Second, the fracking argument fails to take into account the current short-term nature of the gas supply concerns and culmination of numerous global influences. Demand for gas has been steadily decreasing in the UK as we strive to reduce our carbon emissions and find renewable energy solutions (the capacity of which has more than quadrupled since 2010).
Conversely, global gas supply was steadily increasing, up until the Covid-19 pandemic, and is likely to climb again in the future. The most recent gas supply forecasts by the UK Government also assume that no domestic shale is needed to satisfy demand.
UK gas is traded on a European market, so it’s highly unlikely that domestically fracked shale would have any impact on energy prices, unlike the US where there have been some consumer positives.
Threats of Russian interference are also heavily exaggerated. Less than five per cent of the UK’s gas supply is imported from Russia, with the vast majority coming from domestic North Sea reserves, Norwegian pipelines and shipped from elsewhere in the world, including Qatar.
As for the viability of fracking for the industry, there isn’t evidence to suggest that it can work. Fracking has been a disaster for shareholders in the US, and their geology is far more favourable for fracking than on the British Isles and the Bowland Shale.
In the UK, the most recent shale drilling sites missed their targets and wasted millions. Research commissioned by Friends of the Earth found that, due to the unpredictable nature of the UK’s geology, it could very well take ten attempts of fracking at each site for commercial levels of gas to be extracted. Fracking in the UK is just not a viable business model.
Even without the 2019 moratorium on fracking, it’s unlikely we would be any closer to a domestic shale gas industry in the UK today. The current energy supply and price issues are concerning, but they are part of a global energy crisis, worsened by poor weather, Covid-19, spot market dependency and a fall in coal supply. Fracking in the UK has no realistic place in the current debate.
As for the long term, fracking is certainly not a free market silver bullet for achieving energy self-sufficiency. We aren’t simply sitting on an invisible shale gas store that we can turn the taps on at a moment’s notice. For domestic shale to have the slightest impact on UK energy, it would require a level of state intervention unseen for decades with unparalleled cumulative impacts.
Politically speaking, fracking would also be a disaster for the Conservatives. Almost half of the 200 constituencies potentially targeted for fracking are held by Conservative MPs – including many in the “red wall”. Now is perhaps not the right time for the Prime Minister to rub his colleagues up the wrong way on this issue.
Foreign and domestic governments have a lot of work to do in securing global energy supplies for the future. However, the residents of Marsh Lane, Eckington, Barnby Moor, Little Plumpton and other potential fracking sites shouldn’t let this keep them awake at night just yet. Fundamentally, there is no need for fracking in the UK and the unavoidable practicalities involved should keep it buried for the foreseeable future. The Government would be unwise to resurrect fracking any time soon.