Fracking is back as an energy option

War in Ukraine prompts government to think again

Fracking, the process of creating fractures in rock formations to release the natural gas trapped inside, was put on hold in the UK three years ago after a trial site in Lancashire caused an earthquake with a magnitude of 2.9. Strong tremors were felt miles from the site, and the resulting shutdown led to residents, environmentalists and opponents of shale gas extraction, to believe that fracking was gone for good.

The two on-site wells were set to be sealed by tons of concrete, but now business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has ordered a new report into the controversial drilling process. Fracking is suddenly back on the agenda because of the halt in oil and gas coming from Russia coupled with soaring energy prices at home. “In light of Putin’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, it is absolutely right that we explore all possible domestic energy sources,” Kwarteng said, adding that if evidence demonstrates that fracking is not safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living nearby, the ban in England will remain in place. “We have always been, and always will be, guided by the science on shale gas,” he said.

Cabinet heavyweights like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord David Frost are proponents of fracking, while energy minister, Greg Hands said recently that, “shale gas and new approaches could be part of our future energy mix.”

This apparent challenge to the UK’s decarbonisation strategy comes just months after Boris Johnson hosted the COP26 climate summit. The Government has committed to meeting a net-zero target for carbon emissions by 2050, but the global spike in imported gas and oil prices appears to have led to a quiet reassessment of policy.

UK energy giants BP and Shell are reporting record profits and being encouraged to extract even more of Britain’s dwindling North Sea energy resources, while they last. None of this though, is helping domestic users, with gas and electricity bills expected to triple this year. Even before the war in Ukraine, rising costs had driven around 30 British power companies out of business. So, what comes next? Johnson is planning to outline a new energy security strategy soon that is expected to call for more renewable and nuclear power. Meanwhile companies like Cuadrilla, owners of the Lancashire site, believe vast quantities of shale gas may be hidden underneath rock surfaces across the UK, giving access to an untapped energy source.

One report estimates that reserves could be as high as 1,329 trillion cubic feet of gas, with the UK currently consuming about 2.8 trillion cubic feet per year. The government might be tempted, but the figures could be over-optimistic, as the real quantities that can be extracted only become clear when serious drilling starts. And significant amounts of gas would take years to come on line, so would not help the immediate crisis. Any resumption of fracking would enrage environmental campaigners who argue the process can potentially force carcinogenic chemicals into the atmosphere – as well as cause earthquakes.

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