During the Conservative leadership election, the promise to frack the bejesus out of the country’s shale reserves and be seen to address the UK’s fuel crisis, was an easy pick – especially with Liz Truss having worked as an industrial economist for Shell, and Rishi Sunak’s background and family investments connecting him to the second-largest oil company in the world.
The angry exchanges in the House of Commons this week, following the release of the written ministerial statement and the overdue British Geological Survey review of the geological science of shale gas fracturing, show disharmony and unease across the House. Not least on the backbenches of the Tory party.
U-turn on fracking promises
Following Truss’s inexplicable win, she made it clear on only her second day of office that not only was she all for fracking, but that her administration would ensure that a bonanza of petroleum exploration and development licences (PEDLs) would be up for grabs. This, along with the craziest of all the promises: that the fracked gas would be flowing within six months.
Since 2011, wannabe frackers have tried to get at the proclaimed shale-rich bounty beneath our feet. And time after time, they failed to hit the spot or find the honey pot; then, even when they did, they failed to extract the gas without causing uncontrollable seismic activity. Cuadrilla’s catalogue of blunders at the most developed site in the country, Preston New Road in Lancashire, culminated in a 2.9ML earthquake that brought about the moratorium in 2019.
We’re reflecting on 11 years of trying to successfully frack a site in the UK, and yet Cuadrilla has not yet extracted enough gas to power a three-bed semi. What magical miracle does Truss have up her sleeve to ensure gas flows within six months?
Let’s track back a few years and look at the planning and technical breaches which resolve the history of failed fracking in the UK, focusing on Lancashire.
Earthquakes, damage, breaches of regulations
- Cuadrilla arrived on the Fylde Coast back in 2011, drilling at a rural location called Preese Hall, just outside Blackpool. Their operations managed to trigger a widely felt 2.3ML earthquake in the early hours of the morning – ironically, on April Fools’ Day 2011. Another 50 seismic events were later confirmed that year, including a 1.5ML quake. Fracking was halted at the site, with Cuadrilla warned and criticised over their ‘performance as licensees’ by the then energy minister, Charles Hendry.
- Cuadrilla failed to recognise the damage that the tremor did to the well bore, leading to deformation of the well casing – a serious issue. They did not report this to government officials for six months. Follow up reports on Preese Hall suggest the well integrity was indeed compromised.
- Becconsall was a Cuadrilla site near to Southport in Lancashire. Cuadrilla drilled outside the required time limits that would see wintering birds protected. They also drilled beyond the well site to a side track without planning permission, and then failed to restore the sites within the permitted time.
- Anna’s Road, close to Preese Hall, was Cuadrilla’s next target in 2013, where their performance once again showed a sloppy side, when drillers dropped a packer tool into the well and were unable to retrieve it. The site was abandoned, with Cuadrilla blaming ‘wintering birds’.
- At Singleton in Lancashire, Cuadrilla again failed to restore the site within the permitted time on the planning permission, and, additionally, they drilled the well side track without permission, to bypass a drilling assembly that was lodged in the borehole and could not be retrieved.
- More recently, Cuadrilla’s exploits at Preston New Road from 2017 clocked up a catalogue of permit breaches – including 16 sanctions by the Environment Agency. DrillOrDrop reported on breaches from waste management and unauthorised methane venting to incorrectly certified equipment.
- A sizeable 2.9ML earthquake on August 24 2019, caused by Cuadrilla activity at Preston New Road, led to the second fracking moratorium in the UK. The quake was widely felt and caused almost 200 reports of property damage. This demonstrated that fracking is unsafe, unsuitable and unnecessary. Cuadrilla have displayed a technical failure at every site they’ve ever operated on.
Small tremors: an early warning of worse to come
Talking about the earthquakes and tremors that have been witnessed through fracking in the UK, geologist and academic Professor Stuart Haszeldine stated:
“The practical significance is not whether these tremors are felt at the surface or not, but in the potential to damage the borehole, and the potential to create gas pathways from the shale towards larger faults, towards shallower aquifers, and to the surface.”
It’s risks like this that make the difference between regulating seismic activity from fracking and that caused by construction, geothermal and other practices. Quarries too have been used as a comparison, but controlled explosions are used there, whereas fracking sets off uncontrollable seismic events. And then there’s the traffic, pollution, water usage and disposal, and methane emissions, which don’t accompany these other industries.
The fracking industry has tried to downplay the earthquakes that accompanied drilling in the UK and says that they are small, but of course, that doesn’t tell us anything useful. A study from Stanford University did, though, when it pointed out “that small tremors could be an early warning of greater problems to come”.
The industry has said it wants the level at which it would have to stop work raised from magnitude 0.5 to perhaps 3.0.
Fracking: no solution to energy security or high prices
The UK’s new prime minister says that she sees fracking as a way to ensure energy security, telling parliament, “It is vital we take steps to increase our domestic energy supply”.
So, let’s focus away from reality for a moment and imagine a land where fracking is possible, where the gas flows to Truss’s command and sites pop up throughout the kingdom. What will this bring the population that’s hungry for so many things: food, a living wage, decent services, a hospital appointment, a dentist and the holy of holies – affordable energy bills?
Quite simply, nothing. Kwasi Kwarteng MP – the then secretary of state at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – wrote on fracking back in March 2022, dismissing shale impacts on energy bills:
“First, the UK has no gas supply issues. And even if we lifted the fracking moratorium tomorrow, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes – and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside.
“Second, no amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European price any time soon.
“And with the best will in the world, private companies are not going to sell the shale gas they produce to UK consumers below the market price.”
No benefit for job creation
When Victoria, Australia, banned fracking, they cited a host of reasons including: “For every 10 new gas jobs, 18 agricultural jobs were lost.” (GISERA 2014)
When the industry is trying to sell us on fracking, it makes claims about a vast number of jobs being created. In Lancashire, the planning application said that the industry would create just 11 jobs at each of the two sites. Even these jobs aren’t all skilled fracking jobs. They also counted ‘indirect’ job creation too, such as supply chain.
“The idea that fracking will create 70,000 jobs has often been used and presented as a ‘benefit’. David Cameron used the figure back in 2013 . But here’s the rub. In the US, between 2005 and 2012, each new fracking well created approximately four jobs . Going on these numbers, how many wells would the UK need to frack to create 70,000 jobs? A staggering 17,500 fracking wells.”
And then there’s us: the anti-fracking movement
The UK anti-fracking movement grew from a handful of residents in 2011 to, at its height, more than 400 groups scattered about the country. All united in the one goal: to stop the UK from getting fracked. Groups worked independently but shared resources, reports and, when required, campaigners who would ensure a show of strength and solidarity at events. Scotland, Ireland, Wales succeeded where England didn’t, securing moratoriums against fracking, More recently, the leaders of Scotland and Wales have confirmed fracking will not be allowed.
The visible side of the anti-fracking movement, on ‘front lines’ at proposed sites, has been the focus in the media for the most part – the truck-stopping, clashes with police and disruptions seen in places like Balcombe, Barton Moss, Preston New Road and others – but there was a whole lot more being achieved as well that was out of sight.
Growing cross-party resistance to fracking
Lobbying by residents who discovered enough to be anti-fracking, meant previously compliant or silent MPs started to speak out for fear of losing their seats in license areas. Heavy objections to planning applications and public meetings helped to raise the topic to a loud level. Eventually, it wasn’t just the Greens who were saying no to this industry, but cross-party – Lib Dems, Labour and even a few Tories.
The next few weeks could prove crucial to the resurgence of fracking in the UK. With Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the driving seat, little focus will be on the negative effects of fracking, and more on the poor understanding this new Conservative administration has of hydraulic fracturing. Could stark warnings to ‘look at the facts’ from the Committee on Climate Change’s Lord Deben impact Truss’s direction to go ‘all out’ for shale? Or will we be sleepwalking into another climate-damaging fossil fuel nightmare?
We are ready and awaiting the next move from Westminster.
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