It’s 1947 and across the pond in the United States, a scientific experiment has begun which has been touted as a game-changer for the oil and gas industry. Its name? Hydraulic fracking.
Fracking is essentially the process of injecting pressurised fluids into drill holes in a bid to create cracks in the deep-rock to gain access to natural gas or oil. Once a fracture has been made, a ‘proppant’ such as sand is used to keep it open and allow continued access to the untapped fossil fuel resources which are then used for commercial and household energy production.
A growing reliance
Soon after the first fracking experiment, the US went on to use fracking commercially. Today, fracking produces two-thirds of the natural gas in the United States and approximately 50 percent of the nation’s oil. The UK adopted the process in the North Sea in the 1970s, and expanded into land-based operations in the following decades.
It’s fair to say fracking had little public attention in the UK until the late 2000s when the British public turned their attention to a fracking site operated by Cuadrilla Resources, a British oil and gas exploration company, who was granted a licence to start petroleum exploration along the coast of Lancashire. In 2011, operations had to be called to a halt after only two months after seismic activity was measured at the drilling site — operations were later suspended after two minor earthquakes were confirmed.
Naturally, local residents weren’t happy. After much petitioning and lobbying by environmental groups, the British Government indefinitely suspended fracking in 2019 following a report by the Oil and Gas Authority into earth tremors. The ban was part of the Conservatives 2019 manifesto and it was said that it would remain in place unless the science or the public position ever changed.
Man-made earthquakes certainly aren’t good for residents or the local environment. But the impacts of fracking go even deeper. Early phase research is already suggesting that fuels extracted from fracking are more harmful to the environment than regular, non-fracked oil and gas due to the process utilising far more energy and leaking more harmful gases into the atmosphere than conventional methods.
It’s not only air quality that’s affected. Toxic chemicals and gases have been found to leak into the surrounding water course. In a study released earlier this year by the University of Rochester, it was found that “fracking-related chemicals – including dangerous volatile organic compounds – are making their way into groundwater that feeds municipal water systems, and that the potential for contamination is greatest during the pre-production period when a new well is established.”
As with most industrial operations, once the use-case has been proven most companies look to grow and scale the process to maximise profits. Large-scale fracking has been shown to have equally large effects on the nearby environment and ecosystems. Thousands of wells would be needed to produce just half of the UK’s gas demand and would require significant logistical infrastructure to deliver chemicals and transport gas, oil, and waste collected on-site.
Double deals and conflicting standards
As environmental and sustainability conferences gain momentum — the most ‘famous’ being the annual COP event between world leaders — targets and pledges have been continually made in a bid to reduce global emissions significantly and stay below the 1.5 – 2 degree celsius warming scientists have warned are the upper limits needed to reduce the worst of the effects from global warming.
Yet at the same time, those same governments and corporations are dealing under the table to open up yet more oil and gas extraction, with fracking a core component of those plans despite the fact that energy experts have stated that the vast majority of untapped gas must stay in the ground if we’re to come even close to achieving the currently vague and obsolete targets
The irony is that fracking has been shown to have no effect on our household energy bills. According to Greenpeace “the way the energy market works means any gas from it will be sold to the highest bidder globally, which won’t help reduce bills.”
Turbulent UK politics
A lot has changed since 2019 in the UK. In February of this year, Boris Johnson (then the UK prime minister) finally pulled the plug on the Cuadrilla fracking site in the north of the country and decommissioned two shale gas wells — a move that was reported to be the end for Britains fracking industry.
That move was short-lived. Just a couple of months later in March 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine led to Cuadrilla submitting a request to the government to keep the wells open in the name of “energy security.” To the surprise of virtually the entire nation, they were given a year’s extension until June 2023 to review the closure.
The extension naturally caused quite a ruckus amongst oil protesters, anti-fracking activists and the general public. However the controversy didn’t stop there. In September, Liz Truss, the UKs shortest serving prime minister, ordered a complete overturn of the three year-long ban on fracking — a move that proved to be one of her more regrettable mistakes in office and that caused significant controversy within the Conservative party and anger amongst the general public.
And yet there appears to be another turn of events as this article goes to press. On only his second day in office, Rishi Sunak — Truss’s successor as PM and the fifth prime minister in six years — has reinstated the ban on fracking in a dramatic U-turn.
The news came during Sunak’s first Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). As reported by the BBC, Green MP Caroline Lucas asked if he would restore the moratorium on fracking pledged in the Conservatives’ 2019 manifesto. In response, he said: “I have already said I stand by the manifesto on that.”
An uncertain future
If any of the history on fracking would suggest that Sunak will guarantee the ban on fracking, then I would be surprised. However even if it is to stay, and Rishi is to remain in office until the next general election in 2025, there is still no guarantee of the British fracking industry’s future beyond this decade.
We hope that the closure of Crudrilla’s wells in Lancashire goes ahead in June 2023 (if not before!) and that all future prime ministers follow in the footsteps of Sunak in ensuring that ban on fracking is kept to.
But if truth be told, only time will tell…