current affairs energy environment sustainability

Fracking in Britain: let’s ask some sensible questions

This week saw the release of a government report into gas fracking in Britain. So far there have only been a couple of test wells drilled in the UK, and drilling was suspended when it was suspected that it had caused a couple of minor earthquakes near Blackpool. The government commissioned an investigation to make sure it was safe, and that was delivered this week. The conclusion is that yes, the fracking probably did cause the earthquakes, but they weren’t sufficiently severe to stop drilling altogether.

The report has had mixed reactions. Enthusiasts say shale gas is a vital part of Britain’s future energy mix and we should frack on with it. Opponents say it’s dangerous and polluting, a recipe for earthquakes and flaming tapwater. As we decide whether or not to pursue fracking in Britain, it’s really important that we ask the right questions. We have a decision to make, and we mustn’t let the debate be dominated either by environmental paranoia or energy security optimism.

What do we know about fracking so far? Not much, really. It’s been a fairly niche technology until quite recently, and the evidence is still coming in. We know it does cause minor earthquakes – the same as coal mining. We know that ground water can be polluted, but only if something goes wrong. In theory, fracking takes place well below the water table and the pipe is steel lined, so no waste water should leak into drinking water. In reality, that does occasionally happen. It doesn’t occur as often as some opponents seem to imply, but that’s little comfort to those who do experience it. When it happens, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to fix it. So what standards we are going to put in place to make it as safe as possible? If it does go wrong, how are people going to be compensated? And is it a risk we’re prepared to take?

One of the biggest dangers of fracking is actually rarely discussed – land speculation. For all the talk of the gas boom in the US, the biggest fracking company in America makes more money from land speculation than from the gas itself. They buy the rights, put in a couple of test drills, hype the results and sell on the land for many times the original price. It’s creating something of a bubble that threatens to undo the whole US gas resurgence. As the citizens of Sussex and Lancashire come to terms with local fracking, they should be aware of the potential impact on land prices. How are we going to ensure that farmers and other rural land users aren’t priced out of the market? How is Lancashire going to balance the needs of its dairy farmers and market gardeners with those of the fracking industry?

Another reason for concern is that fracking is a thirsty activity: each well requires millions of litres of water. One of the big areas of exploration in Britain at the moment is Sussex, which the Environment Agency classifies as an area of serious water stress. We should be asking where the drilling companies intend to get their water from.

Ultimately, the main reason to oppose fracking is that it is a fossil fuel. A fracking boom in Britain is incompatible with our carbon targets, and shale gas won’t do anything to fix the long term sustainability of our energy systems. We need ask how seriously we take climate change.

Finally, one thing is for certain: shale gas is not a genuine solution to Britain’s energy problem. As the Ofgem graph below shows, it cannot possibly compensate for the decline in North Sea production. Whether we pursue fracking or not, we’ll still have increasing gas imports. Even a gas boom (green sector below) would scarcely make a dent in our rising gas bills. With or without shale gas, Britain’s era of cheap energy is over. Which implies the question: it fracking even worth it in the first place?

I suspect that fracking will get a cautious green light from the government, but I doubt they’ll want to be seen encouraging it too loudly. I also suspect that the drilling companies will face such a massive PR battle with local communities that fracking will face a similar fate to wind power in the UK: lots of  potential, held back by nimbyism and scaremongering. The big difference between the two is that wind is a free and renewable resource and harnessing it is a harmless process, while shale gas is non-renewable and climate-altering and drilling for it is potentially dangerous. I know which one I’d rather invest in.


  1. Good summary. The earthquake concern is really quite minor. Water is more significant, but the real issue is that fracking represents a significant expansion in the total pool of accessible carbon that we’ll be able to move from safe and basically permanent storage underground into the active carbon cycle, where most of it will remain for centuries and even millennia, disrupting the climate and acidifying the oceans. We already cannot burn more than about 20% of known fossil fuel reserves (not resources, but reserves, i.e. economically recoverable) if we want to have at least a 75% chance of staying below the already very dangerous 2ºC mark. If we can’t even burn more than a relatively small part of all the conventional fuels we’re currently planning to without risking catastrophic results, then why on earth expand the reserves?

    (Another minor point that has seen a little discussion over the last couple of days is that it is possible that fracking also ruins possible storage locations for any future carbon sequestration effort by riddling them with holes. Given that the process of capturing and sequestering the carbon remains prohibitively expensive, CCS is unlikely to be a realistic contributor to emissions reductions for some time. But perhaps that could change in the future and fracking may be diminishing the pool of suitable geological formations.)

  2. Good point about CCS, that’s interesting.

    And I agree. It’s climate change that makes fracking a bad idea. Unfortunately, our collective denial of climate change probably means we’ll press on regardless.

  3. Fracking is a great idea however it might not be the concept we should be spending our time and energy on in the UK. There are other projects which would be more likely to move us towards clean energy.

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