Seven years ago, earthquakes in Blackpool led the coalition government to place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in UK rock formations. Drilling resumed late last year. Opposition has always been resolute and well organised, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire. In a court hearing last autumn, the fracking company Cuadrilla announced that each day of delay at its Preston New Road operation saw it incur losses of £94,000. The figure was meant to cajole the courts, but may have had the unintended consequence of motivating protesters. By barricading roads, climbing aboard delivery trucks and taking legal action, campaigners have harried Cuadrilla and other firms every step of the way, shutting down fracking sites for days at a time.
Regulations on ‘induced seismicity’, however, remain the greatest obstacle. It seems there’s no way to drive pressurised water and chemicals into rock formations without making the earth quake. With drilling in Lancashire repeatedly halted by dozens of tremors, Cuadrilla has questioned the suitability of the ‘traffic light system’ for safe seismic activity; if you can’t change fracking, change earthquakes instead.
The government, long a friend to the industry, may now be more sceptical. The energy minister, Claire Perry, wrote to remind Cuadrilla last November that its plans had been drawn up in accordance with current safety laws.
In few places outside the US has a government been so patient with the frackers. France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland are among the European countries to have outlawed the practice. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have used devolved planning powers to stop it. The Labour Party promises to ban fracking in England, too.
Against such treatment elsewhere, the industry cannot claim to have got a poor return on its donations in Westminster (the All Party Parliamentary Group on Unconventional Oil and Gas received tens of thousands of pounds between 2013 and 2017). Trespass laws have been altered to prevent landowners from objecting to subterranean drilling. Council planning refusals have been overturned by government ministers, most recently by Sajid Javid as communities secretary. Anti-terror legislation has been invoked and protesters identified as domestic extremists. Humberside Police used the government’s counter-terror Prevent strategy to pick out young people who might be involved with environmental campaigns.
In 2014, before a single exploratory well had been drilled, George Osborne proposed a shale sovereign wealth fund for England’s north. Fracking took its place in the Coalition’s infrastructure plans alongside a third runway at Heathrow, Hinkley Point C and HS2. The unpopularity of a project was no hindrance to decision making; ignoring dissent was a signal of resolve.
Last November, gas finally flared above the Cuadrilla rig at Preston New Road. A drone filmed the flame, which looked the part; markets responded favourably, and disappointment among protesters was offset by muted surprise that it had actually happened – UK shale gas was on-stream. Three weeks later, a report from Cuadrilla to the Environment Agency revealed the company had injected propane into an otherwise underwhelming gas well ‘to assist combustion’.
Energy security – and the UK’s reliance on Russian gas – has proved among the most durable arguments for fracking, even grabbing a front page in the Sun. But Russia accounts for less than 1 per cent of UK gas imports. In 2017, Centrica announced that it was shutting down the country’s largest gas storage facility, Rough, taking away a reserve that could be drawn on during shortages or price spikes. Britain’s gas strategy now is to prioritise import infrastructure for Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), which is thought to have ‘sufficient flexibility over the long term to fill the gap left by declining UK Continental Shelf production’. Vast reserves have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean, and demand in Asia is being supplied by new fields in the Indian Ocean that will keep world prices suppressed. If LNG means we don’t need Rough, it means we don’t need fracking, either.
Claire Perry’s letter to Cuadrilla said the company can still play a ‘critical role in helping the UK decarbonise’. That seems unlikely. Gas remains the biggest source of UK electricity, but also the most polluting after coal, which now makes up around 5 per cent and falling of UK power and will be phased out altogether by 2025. The UK is already able to go for days without any of its coal-fired stations in the right weather conditions, when wind turbines provide up to 40 per cent of electricity demand. Renewables are now forecast to overtake fossil fuels as soon as 2020, and legally binding legislation on carbon emissions also requires a reduction in the use of gas for domestic heating.
With heavy deregulation, fracking could one day turn a profit for a handful of companies. Whether this is any longer relevant to the UK’s energy strategy is another question, which even the Conservative Party may soon stop asking.