UK Sets Nation-Wide Fracking Moratorium
The United Kingdom has issued a temporary moratorium on shale gas fracking, citing the industry’s inability to “reliably predict and control tremors”.
The announcement comes in the wake of a highly critical audit of the UK’s fledging fracking industry, and with the public growing ever more resistant to the process. But with the country in the throes of a snap election scheduled for December 13, the Labour opposition is declaring the ban an “election stunt” calculated to re-elect a government that still sees fracking as a good thing to do.
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The moratorium comes two months after fracking by Lancashire-based Cuadrilla Resources was suspended following an earthquake that measured 2.9 on the Richter scale, reports the BBC.
An earlier BBC report on the August suspension of Cuadrilla’s drilling activities said the quake was stronger than those that forced the company “to suspend test fracking in 2011, and came two days after a number of other smaller seismic events”. It explained that UK law requires fracking be temporarily stopped whenever “any tremor measuring 0.5 or above” is detected, so that tests can be conducted.
Earlier this year, Cuadrilla demanded the government relax its earthquake production, only to be rebuffed by then-energy secretary Claire Perry.
Days ago, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Andrea Leadsom said future fracking permits would depend on companies like Cuadrilla acquiring the technical know-how to predict seismic activity, following the Oil and Gas Authority’s judgement that the industry lacks that ability.
Newcastle University petroleum geologist Richard Davies said he doubted such expertise could be acquired anytime soon. “The UK is crisscrossed with faults, and it’s difficult to avoid them because the current imaging techniques used by the industry do not yet provide enough resolution to detect many of them,” he explained.
The moratorium is a major turnaround for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who as mayor of London had previously vowed to leave now stone “unfracked”, The Independent reports. But even as environmental campaigners hailed the announcement, the ruling Conservatives faced pressure for a permanent ban, with Leadsom still calling the partial measure was a “disappointment” due to what she saw as the “advantages” of fracking.
While conceding in a BBC interview that the government “must impose this moratorium until the science changes”, Leadsom maintained that shale gas production is something the UK “will need for the next several decades”. When the interviewer asked why, she replied: “Because this is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom”.
The mixed message had opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn declaring the ban an election stunt. “I think it sounds like fracking would come back on 13 December, if they were elected back into office,” he said. “I think it’s what’s called euphemistically a bit of a greenwash.”
For as long as it lasts, though, the UK’s second moratorium on fracking in less than 10 years is yet more bad news for the industry, which was battered by the late summer revelation that a 2013 British Geological Survey predicting “enough resources in the Bowland Shale across northern England to potentially provide up to 50 years of current gas demand” was out by about 45 years. Geologists now believe the Bowland contains only “five to seven years’ supply,” writes the BBC. (That gap between earlier and later estimates echoes the experience in the United States, where shale wells frequently run out of recoverable resource far faster than their promoters initially predicted. In 2014, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said the capacity of California’s Monterey shale had been overestimated by 96%.)
Similarly, “shale gas was supposed to be an energy saviour for Britain as oil and gas production from the North Sea wound down,” the Globe and Mail writes. “In 2013, the government went all in on shale, promising up to 40 wells by 2025, the creation of 64,500 jobs, and £33 billion, or C$55.5 billion, worth of investment.”
Six years later, the UK has only three wells drilled, its taxpayers are out of pocket at least £32.7 million, and many Britons have been drained of whatever trust they had in the industry. “Public opposition to fracking has jumped from 21% in 2013 to 40% in 2019 because of concern about risks to the environment and fracking-induced earthquakes,” the Globe reports, citing government figures.
Such a broadening in public awareness owes significantly to years of “fierce opposition” from local communities and environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth UK, whose CEO Craig Bennett told the BBC that a permanent, legally-binding ban on fracking must be the ultimate outcome of a near-decade-long “David and Goliath battle against this powerful industry”.
The UK Green Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats have all expressed strong support for a permanent ban, reports the BBC, a stance which puts them in company with the “no fracking” position now solidly in place in both Scotland and Wales, and the growing one in Northern Ireland. (For news of the gas bubble bursting elsewhere in Europe, see this New York Times article on The Netherlands.)Goliath still hasn’t ceded the field, however. “Going forward, we are fully committed to working closely with the Oil and Gas Authority and other relevant regulators to demonstrate that we can operate safely and environmentally responsibly,” UK Onshore Oil and Gas CEO Ken Cronin told the BBC. UK anti-fossil legend Jeremy Leggett suggests Cronin may find “going forward” an exceedingly lonely, costly road, since “no sane investor will tread here again”.