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UK fracking banned until 13 December

It is rare for the entire spectrum of the British press to agree on something.  But a couple of weeks ago they all agreed that fracking had been banned in the UK.  Pro-fracking outlets like the Telegraph and the Daily Mail reported the news as an unconscionable government cave-in.  Meanwhile the Guardian reported it as a triumph of liberal activism:

“Following years of opposition from local communities, the wider public and other major political parties, the Conservative government finally admitted defeat and announced a moratorium. It will, of course, try to claim a moratorium on fracking as a win for itself, but this is a victory for people power.”

Activism, though, is seldom better than the proverbial “two steps forward and one step back;” and is never so decisive.  What neither side seemed to notice – at least to begin with – was that the government hadn’t really banned fracking at all.  The actual government announcement stated that:

“Fracking already takes place across the world including in the US, Canada and Argentina. However, exploratory work to determine whether shale could be a new domestic energy source, delivering benefits for our economy and energy security, has now been paused – unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely here.” (my emphasis)

That “further evidence” might turn out to merely be that earthquake safety parameters had been set far too low in the UK compared to other countries that engage in fracking – in the USA, for example, a 4.0 earthquake – far higher than anything yet experienced in the UK – would be the point at which drilling activities would be suspended.

Within hours of the announcement, government ministers began to back-track; suggesting that they continued to support fracking in principle.  And, as Peter Styles and Keith Baker point out in a Conversation article, the government moratorium contains a “loophole” which gives it a decidedly political feel:

“The suspension applies in the north of England, but the smallprint reveals that similar fossil fuel exploration in many traditionally safe Conservative constituencies in south-east England will be just as open for business as before…

“In the rolling hills south-west of London, work is also underway to extract gas and oil using similar methods. At numerous sites in Surrey and Sussex, companies are in the process of – or are planning to – inject acid in boreholes to widen fractures in the rock below.

“This may be at a low pressure (a technique termed acidisation) or a higher pressure (acid fracking). But, crucially, both of these techniques tend to use pressures lower than the threshold at which the government’s moratorium outlaws fossil fuel extraction. So, fossil fuel exploration in south-east England usually encompassed under the term ‘fracking’ is in fact exempt from this ‘ban’.”

Andy Bounds, Nathalie Thomas and Jim Pickard at the Financial Times also note the politics behind the announcement:

“When fracking triggered an earthquake near the town of Blackpool on August 26 it not only shook homes but snapped the patience of Mark Menzies. The Conservative MP for Fylde in north-west England, who had endured years of protests and unpopularity by backing the industry, finally called for a ban…

“Many fracking licences have been granted in the Midlands and North of England, where the Tories need to pick up seats if they are to secure a majority in parliament. For example, nearby Blackpool South is a Labour-held Tory target, while neighbouring South Ribble was held by Labour until 2010 and needs just a 7 per cent swing to switch. 

“Nationally, 35 per cent of the public oppose fracking with 15 per cent in support; the rest do not have an opinion. Robert Hayward, a Tory peer and pollster, said: ‘There is no question that this [moratorium] could have an impact because it removes a major bone of contention. How many votes it will change is a moot point but it should make campaigning easier for the Conservatives in some seats’.” 

The Financial Times article goes on to outline three key reasons – which have nothing to do with activism – why industrial-scale fracking has failed to materialise in the UK:

“Will Scargill, senior oil and gas analyst for GlobalData, said Conservative politicians who in the early 2010s predicted a shale gas revolution in the UK were misguided. He pointed out that unlike the US, the UK is a densely populated country with restrictive planning laws and the state, rather than individuals, receives royalties from gas.”

These – together with geological – barriers to UK fracking can be more concisely stated with just four letters – COST.  The reality (for the time being) is that the world is over-supplied with gas to the point that it is cheaper to import piped gas from Norway and Russia, and even to transport liquidised gas from Qatar and the USA, than it is to try to drill the stuff out of the UK’s tortured rock formations.  Investors have known this for several years; which is why, for example, Barclays bank ceased investing in UK fracking. 

Nor does it make much sense in energy security terms to spend a lot of money producing gas that cannot be sold profitably when the UK is bound to need it five or ten years from now.  This point was made by the UK government’s energy policy reviewer Dieter Helm last year:

“The totality of shale gas available in the United Kingdom is just not on the same scale as in the United States… What’s more, there’s no energy-independence advantage to be gained from extracting shale gas… There’s no shortage of gas globally, including fracked gas from the United States, some of which is being imported into Scotland already. Do we have to produce it ourselves? No.”

As with everything that happens during a general election campaign, the government moratorium on fracking is yet more smoke and mirrors.  In the event that the Tories are returned with a majority on Friday 13 December, I wouldn’t rule out the supposed “ban” being reversed… particularly if ministers continue to believe that there is money to be made.  Nevertheless, the real threat to UK fracking always was and always will be the excessively high (energy and monetary) cost of accessing shale gas from our poor geological formations.

The temporary ban may be regarded as a tactical victory for activists; but it will be the Energy Return on Energy Invested calculation that will ultimately sound the death knell for UK fracking.

As you made it to the end…

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