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Take frack control

Take frack control

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Geology, public opinion and even some of her own MPs are opposed to Liz Truss’s plan to lift the ban on fracking for gas. Will it ever happen?

At a time when inflation is high and the pound is low, Britain cannot afford to keep buying expensive gas from Europe.

So, the hunt is on to find cheap sources of domestic energy. And part of the answer, at least according to Liz Truss, is lying beneath our feet…

Which is why the new prime minister has decided to lift the ban on fracking. 

“We will end the moratorium on extracting our huge reserves of shale, which could get gas flowing in as soon as six months, where there is local support for it.”

Liz Truss

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling into the earth and injecting water and chemicals at high pressure to break rocks and release the gas trapped inside.

It’s a process that has reaped huge rewards for the US oil and gas industry. The American shale revolution transformed the country into the world’s top oil and gas producer.

But Lancashire isn’t Texas.

Liz Truss’s dream to take frack control faces some cold hard realities.

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The first problem is geology. In the US, shale rock is stacked flat and spread over a wide area. But in Britain the rock is full of faults through which gas can escape. 

As Stuart Haszeldine a geology professor at the University of Edinburgh, explains

“Any oil and gas which was there had many opportunities to leak out. And that’s a really important feature which people are overlooking, that the samples, the actual physical rock samples which have been recovered from drilling boreholes and analysed, have been found to have less than 10 per cent of of the original oil and gas remaining in them.”

Stuart Haszeldine, University of Edinburgh

No one really knows exactly how much gas is left under Britain – and more importantly, whether it can be retrieved at a commercial scale.

But that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

In 2011, a company called Cuadrilla Resources pioneered the first major shale gas discovery in the UK. At peak flow, its wells in Lancashire were able to produce enough gas to supply 150 homes a year. In other words: not enough to put a dent in the energy crisis.

Then, after eight years of trying to get fracking off the ground, this happened:

“An earthquake with a magnitude of 2.9 has been recorded near to the UK’s only active shale gas site in Lancashire.”

LoveWorld News

Soon after, protests by local residents and anti-fracking campaigners reached a crescendo…

“No more, no more! Hit the road frack, don’t you come back no more!”

Protestors singing, Greenpeace

And the oil and gas authority was forced to suspend drilling at Cuadrilla’s wells. A temporary ban on all fracking shortly followed, with the condition that it could only restart if science found it to be safe.

And the science on fracking remains inconclusive. A recent report from the British Geological Survey said: “Forecasting the occurrence of large earthquakes… remains a scientific challenge for the geoscience community.”

But the government is reviewing the fracking regulations anyway. 

Here’s business secretary Jacob Rees Mogg speaking to Newsnight’s Victoria Derbyshire:

“Last night industry figures told Newsnight that without changes to the planning regulations and seismic limits, there wouldn’t be a future for fracking in this country. Are you planning to change those regulations?’

Victoria Derbyshire

“The seismic limits will be reviewed to see a proportionate level at 0.5 on the Richter scale, which is only noticeable with sophisticated machinery.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Fracking would help make Britain’s energy supply more secure, but bills would hardly be affected. That’s because the price of the gas it produces would still be decided by the global market. 

So would the British public accept it?

***

A recent poll by Survation found that just 34 per cent of people support energy generation from fracking, compared to 74 per cent who support onshore wind.

As you might expect opposition is stronger in areas that could have fracking sites and Conservative MPs are taking note.

Licences for fracking exist in 94 Tory-held seats, many of them in the north of England where Conservative MPs won with slim majorities at the last election.

Others are sceptical about the benefits compared to other, cleaner energy sources and some worry about safety.

This is Sir Greg Knight, himself a former energy minister, speaking in the House of Commons

Is it not the case that forecasting the occurrence of seismic events as a result of fracking remains a challenge to the experts? Is it not therefore creating a risk of an unknown quantity to pursue shale gas exploration at the present time? Is he aware that the safety of the public is not a currency in which some of us choose to speculate?

Sir Greg Knight MP

Of course, producing gas from fracking also poses a risk to Britain’s efforts to combat climate change. The UK Committee on Climate Change says that to meet our net zero target we’ll need to reduce the amount of gas we burn by 65 per cent – by 2035. 

Drilling in the shires won’t help that.

In fact, Liz Truss’s own advisor on net zero, the MP Chris Skidmore, has publicly warned investors to avoid fracking in the UK, saying it’s a “non-starter”.

So geology, public opinion, and even her own MPs present major challenges to Liz Truss’s plan to frack Britain, which is why she’s hedged her bets…

Buried within the mini-budget is a plan to ease restrictions on building onshore wind turbines. So if fracking doesn’t go to plan, there is, at least, an alternative.

And it’s one that’s cleaner, safer and more popular. 

This episode was written by Barney Macintyre and mixed by Imy Harper.



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