The controversial practice of fracking may be on its way back as the energy crisis is forcing countries to scramble for energy security.
In the UK, government ministers are reconsidering the current moratorium on fracking imposed in 2019.
In this article, we give you an overview of fracking, what it is, the pros and cons, where it would take place and other pertinent information to get you up to speed.
What is fracking?
‘Fracking’ is a term used for a technique called ‘Hydraulic Fracturing’, in which deep-lying rock is fractured by injecting pressurised fluids. It is used for extracting fossil fuels and to extract geothermal energy.
In the UK, ‘fracking’ is particularly used in the context of natural gas extraction from deep-lying shale and coalbeds through the injection of high-pressure fluids containing water, sand and chemicals to release the gasses trapped within the rock.
The released gas is channelled back to the surface via a deep well, where it is processed into pure natural gas. The extracted natural gas can then be moved by the British gas distribution network to power gas plants or for heating homes.
The technique developed in the US during the post-war 1940s and is still widely used across the pond.
Is fracking happening in the UK?
Following this, the government has recently ordered Cuadrilla’s shale fracking exploration site in Lancashire to permanently plug (fill-in) and abandon its 2.25km deep well, despite the current energy crisis adding a premium on any LNG imports by the UK.
On the other hand, government ministers have been exploring the possibility of overturning the ban based on regulatory and research improvements since then.
This clearly shows that fracking is still the subject of much debate, even when only 17% of the public supported fracking prior to the energy crisis.
When did fracking start in the UK?
Fracking has been used in North Sea offshore oil rigs since the 1960s and became widespread in the 1970s with improving oil and gas yields as a result of advances in the proppants (a type of chemical) utilized.
“Low volume” fracking in the UK mainland has also been taking place extensively during this time, with around 10% of onshore wells doing it until its indefinite suspension in 2019.
However, high-volume” (proper) fracking never took off due to protests and the negative public perception of the practice, which is banned outright in countries like France.
Where is fracking taking place in the UK?
Fracking is currently not taking place in the UK due to the 2019 moratorium on fracking.
However, there are four main areas that have the potential for commercial fracking of British shale gas:
- Bowland-Hodder area in Northern England
- Midland Valley in Scotland
- Weald Basin in Southern England
- Wessex area
Should fracking be allowed in the UK?
This is a contentious subject of debate, with both sides having valid arguments. We do our best to summarise the pros and cons below.
What are the arguments for fracking in the UK?
Jobs: Fracking would boost the local and national economy by generating 16,000 – 65,000 highly distributed direct and indirect jobs across the country.
Energy Security: Despite the gradual de-carbonisation of the economy, natural gas is still the cornerstone of energy in the UK.
Fracking would help the UK secure its natural gas supplies as, currently, a proportion must be imported from Europe to meet supplies at a higher environmental and financial cost.
Adequate Environmental Regulation: Regulation in the UK tends to be stricter than that of the US and Canada, where most of the fracking has historically taken place. The issues of fracking in the US are clearly showcased by the documentary Gasland.
Better Standards: Cuadrilla reported that its operational standards were much higher than those typically seen in the US, including its protection against borehole leakage and smaller seismicity tolerance.
Proponents also accuse the government of double standards when it comes to earthquakes, as fracking for geothermal exploration doesn’t face the same seismicity restrictions.
What are the arguments against fracking in the UK?
The cons side is mainly rooted in the environmental and health concerns outweighing any benefits from extracting natural gas from the ground.
Inadequate environmental regulations: Reports suggest that UK environmental regulation is not strict enough for safe fracking and that government agencies don’t have the capacity to regulate and monitor appropriately.
Air Pollution and Methane: Apart from an increase in local pollution from the operation of a well (e.g. transport, machinery), there are concerns regarding the leakage of methane as this powerful greenhouse gas is a byproduct of fracking.
Significant leakage of methane may negate any of the carbon emissions offset by utilizing natural gas as opposed to the cheaper and more easily accessible coal.
Alternatives like sand batteries can potentially neglect the Achilles heel of renewables as being a potentially inconsistent source of energy.
Water pollution: Given that the fluids being pumped in and out of fracking wells are contaminated with salt, chemicals, fossil fuels and naturally-occurring radioactive materials, any leakage could be highly problematic.
Seismicity: Seismicity was one of the main reasons behind the 2019 moratorium, and even if “unlikely”, a magnitude >4.0 earthquake would cause extensive damage to local housing.
Why was fracking banned in the UK?
Fracking for shale gas was indefinitely suspended in the UK as a result of environmental and health concerns, the unsuitability of existing regulations as well as the mounting negative public opinion on the practice.
Ultimately, a magnitude 2.5 earthquake caused by fracking exploration in Lancashire in May 2011 was the trigger for protests and the general public backlash.
This culminated in the 2019 moratorium on fracking, which may be overturned “unless and until further evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely”.
Here we cover a couple of frequently asked questions regarding fracking that may shed some light on specific aspects of this controversial practice.
Does fracking cause earthquakes?
The short answer is yes, fracking causes earthquakes, but normally these are small and have minimal consequences.
Fracking can cause sudden movements within the earth as drilling a well and injecting fluids may disturb existing faults and fractures within the earth’s crust and cause them to ‘slip’.
Minimal slippage of a couple of millimetres, and tens of kilometres underground is enough to trigger seismic waves that may be felt on the surface, as was the case in the Lancashire earthquakes of 2011.
This tremor had a magnitude of 2.3 on the Ritcher Scale and was strong enough to be felt on the surface. However, this is far from the devastation commonly seen in highly seismic countries like Japan and Chile.
Who regulates fracking in the UK?
Fracking regulation has multiple participants, given its multi-disciplinary nature. These are:
- Department of Business and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
- Oil and Gas Authority (OGA)
- Minerals Planning Authority (MPA)
- Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
- Environment Agency for England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland
Is fracking illegal in the UK?
The government declared a moratorium (indefinite suspension) in England, Scotland and Wales in 2019 on any fracking activities to extract ‘unconventional’ onshore shale gas.
Scotland declared its own moratorium in 2015 and Wales in 2018.
However, ‘fracking’ techniques utilized in other industries like geothermal energy are not covered under this indefinite ban.
How much shale gas is there in the UK?
Estimates of how much shale gas is recoverable under current technology vary widely, from less than a trillion to hundreds of trillions of cubic meters.
A recent review suggests that fracking in the UK could produce between 90 and 330 billion cubic meters of natural gas by 2050, which could represent about 20% of the expected consumption during that period.
How can I save money on my gas bills?
Regardless of what is happening with fracking, one way of saving on your gas bills is by making the most out of the free market and comparing UK gas suppliers on AquaSwitch.