In a Huge Turnaround, U.K. Lifts its Ban on Fracking

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Frack Site Adobe Stock Photo by John

This week, in a huge turn of events, the United Kingdom said it would be lifting its ban on fracking for shale gas to improve its energy security by increasing production, as Europe faces a major energy crisis. But, for many, this move is a giant step backward in terms of their environmental policy and climate change action. So, is Britain’s energy security worth the cost of its environmental progress?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a method for recovering oil and gas from shale rock, involves drilling into the earth and aiming a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals at a rock layer to release the gas contained inside. It was banned by the U.K. government in 2019 following mounting pressure from environmentalists and the Green Party. 

The fracking method has become highly controversial as the injection of such high-pressure liquids can cause earth tremors. Over 120 tremors were seen at just one U.K. fracking site. The U.K.’s industry regulator worried it wasn’t possible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes it might trigger. In addition, fracking has been blamed for leaking millions of tonnes of methane into the atmosphere, and, in some cases, for contaminating the local water supply. However, it can be highly effective at helping energy firms reach otherwise inaccessible natural gas. In addition, many view fracking as vital in transitioning away from dirtier fossil fuels to natural gas, which the E.U. has approved for use during the energy transition.

The new U.K. Prime Minister, Liz Truss, announced this week that the government would be lifting its ban on fracking as part of a broader measure to ensure the country’s energy security, and help to decrease energy prices. This led Business and Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg to announce that firms may now apply for new drilling licenses. Although Truss is insistent that operators will only be approved shale gas projects “where there is local support”.

This stipulation seems rather counterintuitive given that previous U.K. fracking operations were met with wide opposition from local communities. Although Rees-Mogg said financial incentives may be provided to gain support from the community, stating: “Compensation and consent become two sides of the same coin. It will be a matter for the companies to try and ensure widespread consent by offering a compensation package that is attractive.” He also assured the public that the government would be assessing the “permitted seismic activity” on sites. 

The decision to lift the fracking ban was made following months of energy insecurity stemming from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the subsequent sanctions imposed on Russian energy. This sent already high oil and gas prices soaring and led to an international energy shortage. The new Prime Minister believes that allowing fracking will bring greater energy security to the U.K. Furthermore, Rees-Mogg emphasized the lack of understanding of the seismic effects of the drilling, saying that the practice was “safe” and the limitations on the seismic activity should be re-assessed.

The government is now expecting over 100 new exploration licenses to be granted on the U.K. continental shelf in the North Sea. This is expected to significantly boost the country’s long-term energy supply, providing the natural gas needed to support a renewable energy transition. 

But not everyone’s so happy with the decision to allow fracking. Welsh and Scottish parliaments continue to staunchly oppose fracking, saying they will not be supporting the granting of licenses. And environmentalists are continuing to campaign against fracking due to the unknown environmental effects of the process. In terms of international support, the U.S. and Canada maintain that fracking strongly supports their energy security. But many E.U. countries, including Germany, France, and Spain, have banned fracking entirely due to environmental concerns. 

Meanwhile, some experts believe that fracking simply won’t be effective in the U.K. Chris Cornelius, the founder of Cuadrilla Resources, a company that drilled the U.K.’s first modern hydraulic fracturing wells, has warned that fracking on a meaningful scale will be impossible. He believes Truss’s lift of the ban is simply a “political gesture”, adding “I don’t think there is any chance of fracking in the UK in the near term.”

While operating in the U.K., Cornelius discovered that the country’s geology is unsuited to widespread fracking operations, suggesting that “no sensible investors” would take on the risk of developing operations in the region. He added, “It’s very challenging geology, compared with North America [where fracking is a major industry].”

While Truss believes fracking could be part of the answer to the U.K.’s energy security concerns, environmentalists are outraged at the government’s policy turnaround. Meanwhile, experts suggest that this move may be of little significance due to the poor suitability of the U.K.’s geology for fracking. Whatever the outcome, Truss has made her stance on the country’s energy security clear, and she appears willing to take any measure to secure it. 

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Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specializing in Energy and Industry. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK, and is now based in Mexico City.

If you would like to contact our staff writers, you can reach them at [email protected]

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