Fracking is back in the news in the UK. New prime minister Liz Truss is an avowed fan, and has lifted a moratorium that had prevented any new drilling since 2019 – though the industry was making little headway in the UK even prior to the ban.
The push for fracking is unlikely to do much to alleviate the UK’s energy woes, for several reasons. Despite Truss’s enthusiasm, there is little public appetite for fracking – polls consistently show small support, far outweighed by opponents. Protests against fracking will reignite at any likely sites, and every possible legal process will be exhaustively invoked.
Even if fracking did produce any gas – and more than a decade of efforts by the only company to have fracked a well using modern technology in the UK, Cuadrilla, never produced any gas for commercial sale – by the most optimistic forecasts, it would make only a dent in the UK’s gas deficit, and even that would take years. As for bringing down costs – the price of gas is set by international markets, so no price falls would follow.
The prime minister and her team seem determined to press on, ignoring misgivings from their own backbenchers , and the likely reaction of voters. One factor they have overlooked, though, is geology. According to the geologist who founded Cuadrilla in 2007, Dr Chris Cornelius, the UK’s shale rock formations – unlike those of the US and Canada – are not well suited to fracking. The shale tends to be compartmentalised, making it difficult to hydraulically fracture at any scale, he told the Guardian.
Add to that the densely populated nature of the British countryside, and the need to industrialise it on a large scale to get volumes of gas worth the vast investment required, and the future for frackers looks bleak. Cornelius, in a broadside quoted against Truss in parliament, said fracking – which he still supports, in other parts of the world – was not going to take off in the UK, and ministers would do better to look at geothermal energy and tidal power.
Fracking has brought a boom in onshore oil and gas to the US in the last two decades, and predictions of a decline of fracking there as some early wells peter out have proven wide of the mark, with the current soaring gas prices encouraging further investment. But fracking across the US must also undergo a transformation, if the White House is to meet the climate goals it has set.
Last year, at the Cop26 UN climate summit, the US affirmed a new global partnership to cut methane emissions. Methane – a potent greenhouse gas, which is the major component in natural gas – arises from various sources, including rotting vegetation and animal manure, but drilling and fracking for natural gas are among the biggest sources.
At present, poorly enforced regulations and a rush to volume have meant that much of the fracking infrastructure in the US is leaky. Methane seeps to the surface uncollected, and when the fugitive methane reaches the atmosphere has a heating effect scores of times greater than that of carbon dioxide. If the US is to meet its targets to cut methane emissions under the partnership president Joe Biden has forged, fracking must be in the spotlight.
For the rest of the world, there are lessons. Fracking in densely populated regions is problematic: gas leaks, water and air pollution, and health and safety issues plague the operations even where it is regulated; and fracking even in areas that are prepared for industrialisation and devastation of the landscape damages the climate by far more than just the carbon dioxide that burning the gas emits.
The International Energy Agency has warned that no new oil and gas exploration should take place, if we are to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. To stave off the worst of the climate crisis, that must include fracking.