Editorial: Fracking in a time of plenty [NGW Magazine]
Back in 2012, the then-London mayor Boris Johnson said the production of shale gas in the UK would be "an answer to the nation's prayers," allowing the country to import less gas, boost its economy, raise skilled employment and improve its balance of trade.
Seven years on, prime minister Johnson's government has imposed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, used to exploit shale gas.
This goes against the Conservatives' long-held pro-shale position. But the government's hand was forced by a recent report by the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), which concluded it was not possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations. The latest and largest tremor happened when no fracking was taking place.
And there is also the example of the Netherlands to consider, where hundreds of billions of euros of future state income have been lost by the economy ministry’s decision this summer to close the Groningen field in a few years. Recognition of the legitimacy of claims of structural damage to housing caused by tremors in the Groningen area came far too late in the day. No amount of compensation now would be enough to allow the operators to keep the field running.
UK business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, a vocal advocate for fracking, has described Whitehall's decision as "a disappointment." But she has said the ban will be "maintained until compelling new evidence is provided which addresses the concerns around the prediction and management of induced seismicity." Cuadrilla is continuing to work towards that objective. Moratoria have been reversed elsewhere, as Australia’s Northern Territory has done. Scientists could see no reason to stop fracking there.
On the other hand, the moratorium has not come at an altogether unwelcome time for the government, ahead of a snap general election scheduled for December 12 where green issues will matter. The Conservatives are hoping to gain a majority government, putting them in a better position to control Brexit, partly by targeting traditional Labour seats in northern England. And this is where operators have applied for fracking permits, causing some backlash from local residents who have reported damage to buildings.
Cuadrilla Resources CEO Francis Egan said that the flow rates from Preston New Road had been very encouraging but further testing and analysis will be required to validate their sustainability and this work is ongoing. But he added: "There can be no doubt, however, that the UK is sitting on a huge natural gas resource of the highest quality."
The only UK company to have engaged in fracking, Cuadrilla has pledged to work constructively with the OGA to address concerns by providing data from its second Preston New Road well. This provides an opening for the Conservatives, post-election, to cancel the moratorium citing "compelling new evidence," as Leadsom stated.
This is assuming their election tactics pay off. The Conservatives are leading in the polls but polls this year have been extremely volatile.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has promised to make the ban on fracking permanent. "The Conservatives' temporary pause of fracking is an election stunt to try and win a few votes," he said in a tweet on November 2. "Boris Johnson described fracking as 'glorious news for humanity.' We cannot trust him. Labour would ban fracking." The Liberal Democrats have pledged to take a similarly tough stance on fracking if elected.
Even so, the damage may already be done to the UK's shale prospects. Cuadrilla's owners were reported to be considering a sale of the company even before the ban, which could solidify their plan, although major owner AJ Lucas has since denied this. Other investors hoping to secure fracking rights could shelve their schemes as well.
Fracking shale would help the UK to limit its reliance on imports. The OGA forecasts a rise in UK overseas gas dependence from the current level of around 50% to 66% by 2030. Cuadrilla is targeting the Bowland Shale, previously assessed by the British Geological Survey to hold 1,300 trillion ft3 of gas in place across northern England. But even if the practice is once again permitted, the government would need to ease restrictions, notably the traffic light system. The 0.5-magnitude limit on fracking-induced tremors – which Cuadrilla exceeded on a number of occasions this year, forcing it to halt its activity — is a ban in all but name.
Whether or not fracking would be socially acceptable in the UK is another matter. A recent report by the National Audit Office estimated public opposition to shale gas at 40% this year, up from 21% in 2013, while support shrank from 27% to 13%. "Public concern has centred on the risks to the environment and public health, from fracking-induced earthquakes, and the adequacy of the environmental regulations in place," it said.
But timing is on the side of the would-be frackers. Now is not the best time to be producing gas in northwest Europe. True, the gas produced so far has been grid quality, abundant and only a pipeline connection to the national grid and some metering are needed. But there is a glut of LNG keeping wholesale prices down.
But this situation might not last much beyond 2025, and science might come up with some answers on the tremors. The energy transition, by its nature, is of an uncertain duration but accelerating it politically will make it more expensive. Not everyone can afford to take the high ground.