To ban or not to ban: UK fracking in the last three years
Smruthi Nadig explores a “hard-earned victory for environmentalists”, as the UK Government bans fracking in England for the second time in three years.
racking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, is a method of extracting oil and gas from shale rock. The process involves drilling into the ground and spraying a layer of rock with a high-pressure solution of water, sand, and chemicals to release gas, and has the potential to supply a reliable source of power for the UK, with BP arguing in 2013 that global shale gas production could increase by sixfold by 2030.
However, the environmental consequences of the process are severe. A 2016 report named adverse affects on human health, damage to drinking water sources and water and air degradation as just some of the harmful environmental impacts, which has led to a wave of fracking bans across the UK.
Former UK business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom said in 2019: “Whilst acknowledging the huge potential of UK shale gas to provide a bridge to a zero-carbon future, I’ve also always been clear that shale gas exploration must be carried out safely.”
In recent years, Scotland and Wales have banned shale gas production. In 2019, former Scottish minister for community safety Paul Wheelhouse stated: "The Scottish Government's final policy position is that we do not support the development of ’fracking’ in Scotland."
Implementing the ban
An important turning point for environmentalists and community activists came in 2019 when the UK Government banned fracking in England while Boris Johnson was Prime Minister.
Ministers also warned shale gas companies that they wouldn't support any more fracking initiatives, dealing a fatal blow to businesses hoping to benefit from one of the newest areas of growth in the fossil fuel sector.
The Scottish Government first enforced its own ban in January 2015, and set the groundwork for similar moratoriums in England. The ban prohibits the extraction of coal bed methane and shale oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing while the Scottish Government examined the evidence pertaining to any potential effects.
The Scottish Government first enforced its own ban in January 2015, and set the groundwork for similar moratoriums in England.
Wheelhouse said: “After a comprehensive evidence-gathering exercise, we have concluded that the development of onshore unconventional oil and gas is incompatible with our policies on climate change, energy transition and the decarbonisation of our economy.”
However, a series of scandals embroiled Johnson during the coronavirus lockdown, ultimately leading to his resignation on 7 July 2022. His successor, Liz Truss, was appointed two months later, but despite working within the same party as Johnson, the instability at the top of British politics scrambled the country’s stance on fracking.
“Who voted for this?”
Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the government intended to strengthen the UK's energy security. The UK Government has repeatedly criticised Russia's ‘weaponisation of energy’. It plans to increase domestic energy production to reduce reliance on imports, and under Truss, the government lifted the temporary ban on shale gas production in England and reaffirmed its support for a new round of oil and gas licensing.
Newsom said: “People voted for strong action on climate, a fracking moratorium, world-leading environmental protections, and tackling poverty and inequality. What they’re getting instead is fracking, a potential bonfire of rules on wildlife and nature protection, and now the prospect of benefit cuts.”
People voted for strong action on climate, a fracking moratorium, world-leading environmental protections, and tackling poverty and inequality.
Indeed, protesters working for environmental charity Greenpeace interrupted Truss's televised speech at the Conservative Party conference to accuse her of "shredding" her party's election manifesto. Rebecca Newsom, the head of public affairs for Greenpeace UK, and Ami McCarthy, a policy officer, stood in front of the Prime Minister, holding up a banner that read, "Who voted for this?".
A recent YouGov survey reported by Greenpeace showed that 81% of UK adults believed that nature was under threat. According to analysis from Greenpeace’s UK division, Truss and her cabinet ministers confirmed or were considering policies that conflict with the Conservative Party's 2019 manifesto in at least seven areas, including environmental protection, climate action, workers' rights and addressing inequality.
Delivering energy security
The UK’s former business and energy secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, said on 22 September: “In light of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and weaponisation of energy, strengthening our energy security is an absolute priority, and – as the Prime Minister said – we are going to ensure the UK is a net energy exporter by 2040.
“To get there we will need to explore all avenues available to us through solar, wind, oil and gas production - so it’s right that we’ve lifted the pause to realise any potential sources of domestic gas.”
While the aim to deliver energy security for the UK is admirable, there are concerns as to whether shale gas is the best way of achieving this. Newson said in a blog post that conventional oil and gas extraction requires more energy, and fracked gas seems to leak more into the atmosphere. Because gas itself is a greenhouse gas, the overall impact it has on the climate is greater.
Greenpeace reported that Cuadrilla, a fracking company, caused earthquakes that exceeded regulatory limits earlier this year, with a 2.9 magnitude tremor in Lancashire.
Seismic activity has been documented extensively. Greenpeace reported that Cuadrilla, a fracking company, caused earthquakes that exceeded regulatory limits earlier this year, with a 2.9 magnitude tremor in Lancashire.
Indeed, experts estimate that it will take years to begin producing shale gas, which is far less accessible than previously thought, raising practical barriers to the idea of using fracking as a key component of energy security.
Newson said in a statement: “The chancellor said the government is now listening. If so, they may want to pay attention to the widening chorus of leading businesses, energy experts, former Conservative ministers and even the US President telling them to go in the opposite direction."
Kwasi Kwarteng, the chancellor of the exchequer under Truss, presented his mini-budget on 23 September, which aimed to revive the British economy, which was already sorely lacking due to inflation, the cost-of-living crisis and rising fuel prices.
However, opposition to the budget, and by extension Truss’s government, was so intense that she was forced to resign after just 44 days in office. Rishi Sunak was voted as the leader of the Conservative Party after a week, and soon after, he was appointed as UK’s new Prime Minister and promised to reimpose a nationwide ban on shale gas fracking in England.
Sunak made the announcement after informing the ministers that he "stands by" his party's pledge to ban shale gas extraction, bringing the party’s policies back in line with their 2019 pledges.
You’ve got the position set out in the manifesto, which the prime minister pointed to. The department will provide more detail on that in time.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “You’ve got the position set out in the manifesto, which the prime minister pointed to. The department will [provide] more detail on that [in time].”
“It’s also a hard-earned victory for environmentalists across the UK, who battled against the fracking industry and its supporters in government for years, likely causing public opinion to steadily shift against it,” Newson said in the blog post. As a result, UK finds itself in a similar position today as it did in 2019, but with long-standing concerns regarding energy security still unaddressed.
Main image: Oil refinery. Credit: Witthaya Prasongsin via Getty Images