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Liz Truss after being announced as Britain's next prime minister in London, September 5 2022. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
Liz Truss after being announced as Britain's next prime minister in London, 5 September 2022. Credit: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo.
UK POLICY
9 September 2022 8:25

Factcheck: Why fracking is not the answer to the UK’s energy crisis

Multiple Authors

09.09.22
UK policyFactcheck: Why fracking is not the answer to the UK’s energy crisis

The UK’s new prime minister Liz Truss has used her first major policy address to announce an end to the moratorium on fracking in England.

Announcing the move – which breaks a promise made in the 2019 Conservative manifesto – Truss claimed it could “get gas flowing in as soon as six months” amid an energy crisis.

But, as her own chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng has acknowledged recently, it could take up to a decade for shale gas to make a sufficient contribution to domestic supply – and any amount of fracking is unlikely to stem energy price hikes, which are almost entirely driven by wholesale gas prices set internationally.

Truss told parliament that her fracking drive will be contingent on “local support”. However, the most recent government polling finds that just 17% of people support fracking, compared with 90% for solar.

The move to lift the ban comes after a small group of right-leaning publications and commentators have ramped up their calls for fracking, often making factually inaccurate claims about how this could ease the energy crisis.

In this factcheck, Carbon Brief examines why the UK government is – once again – revisiting the fracking debate, as well as the evidence confirming that investing in shale gas would do little to cut bills or boost energy security.

(UPDATE 22 September: Business and energy secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has confirmed plans to lift the ban on fracking and indicated that the government will consider raising the limit on the size of earthquakes that are allowed to take place at drilling sites. This is after a scientific review concluded that forecasting the occurrence and size of large earthquakes “remains a scientific challenge”.)

Why is the UK government lifting the ban on fracking?

Fracking has been banned in England since November 2019, following public outcry over minor earthquakes at a test site in Lancashire. 

The Scottish government already had a policy of opposing fracking since 2015 and the Scottish transport minister recently confirmed there are no plans to issue any fracking licences. Wales has also had a moratorium in place since 2015 and there have been moves to ban it in Northern Ireland.

At the UK’s last general election in December 2019, the Conservative party manifesto reaffirmed the party’s commitment to a fracking ban in England, saying: “We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.”

From the 2019 Conservative party manifesto.
From the 2019 Conservative party manifesto.

Bolstered by a decisive election victory, then-prime minister Boris Johnson was keen to paint himself as a “green” prime minister.

Ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November 2021, Johnson announced several high-level climate commitments, including a pledge to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia of wind power” and a 10-point climate plan for a “green industrial revolution”. 

Johnson’s campaign coincided with an ongoing shift in how UK newspapers covered climate change – with editorials published in support of fracking dropping sharply between 2014 and 2021. (See Carbon Brief’s interactive analysis of how newspapers have covered climate change.)

But just a few months after COP26, Russia invaded Ukraine, which sent shockwaves through the world’s energy systems. As part of his war efforts, Vladimir Putin has restricted gas supplies to Europe, causing energy prices to soar.

Carbon Brief’s daily analysis of newspaper coverage has closely monitored how a small, but vocal minority of Conservative-supporting newspapers and commentators have ramped up their calls for new types of fossil-fuel production, including fracking, often making factually inaccurate claims about how this could ease the energy crisis.

Prominent right-wing commentators have described the UK as sitting on top of a “goldmine” of gas and described the decision not to pursue fracking as “madness”.

Carbon Brief analysis suggests that UK newspapers have already published more editorials about fracking this year than ever before – 39 in total – and all of them have been broadly in favour of it. The Sun alone has published at least 25 editorials praising fracking since January.

Number of UK newspaper editorials discussing fracking between 2011 and 2022.
Number of UK newspaper editorials discussing fracking between 2011 and 2022. All newspapers are grouped together and coloured grey for the years prior to 2022, but broken down and coloured in shades of red for January-September 2022. The figures come from Carbon Brief’s editorials database and previous analysis of UK newspaper editorials. Source: Analysis and chart by Josh Gabbatiss using Highcharts.

These calls were initially rebuffed by cabinet ministers, including the new chancellor and former business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. In both the February and March of 2022, he stated unambiguously that he does not see fracking as the solution to the energy crisis.

Similarly, in March 2022, former energy minister Greg Hands told parliament:

“We are clear that shale gas is not the solution to near-term issues. It would take years of exploration and development before commercial quantities of shale gas could be produced.”

However, in April 2022, Johnson’s government announced a new energy security strategy, which promised to “remain open-minded” about fracking.

A day ahead of the strategy’s release, Kwarteng wrote a letter to the British Geological Survey (BGS) requesting a report on the current state of scientific knowledge around fracking and earthquakes.

In the letter, the business secretary wrote:

“While it remains the case that shale gas extraction is not the solution to near-term price issues, it is right as a government – given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s regime – that we keep all possible energy generation and production methods on the table.”

The questions being explored by the BGS in this review include whether there are new techniques available that reduce earthquake risk, whether modelling of such risk has improved and whether areas outside Lancashire – where exploratory wells were previously drilled – would be less prone to earthquakes.

It asks if ministers could, on the basis of improvements in the past three years, be “completely confident” about modelling of seismic events and their predictability. The review is reportedly due to be published imminently.

By the summer of 2022, Johnson had resigned as prime minister following various scandals – and Truss was announced as his successor on 5 September.

Truss, a former Shell employee, appointed a new cabinet, which included climate-sceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg as business and energy secretary. 

Rees-Mogg has previously expressed support for fracking. In an interview with LBC radio in April 2022, he said fracking “seems quite an interesting opportunity” and downplayed the seismic impacts of drilling operations. Rees-Mogg also reportedly tried to convince Johnson to overturn the ban earlier in the year.

Just two days after Truss was elected, news emerged of her plans to lift the moratorium on fracking in England. During her campaign over the summer to be her party’s leader, she stated on several occasions that she would support fracking, if it received local support.

On 8 September, she confirmed these plans to parliament, saying:

“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.”

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Is there any evidence that fracking will cut bills or provide energy security?

Fracking advocates tend to frame it as a way to produce cheap energy in large volumes within UK borders, but there is little evidence for these central claims.

In recent months, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been met with sanctions from European nations. In response, Moscow has curbed its gas supply to EU nations.

The UK only gets 3% of its gas from Russia, far less than its European neighbours, but Russia’s actions have driven up wholesale prices as countries search for other sources of gas.

It is questionable whether pursuing fracking – a means of extracting gas – is the solution to a crisis driven almost entirely by high gas prices. (Carbon Brief analysis shows that gas prices are behind 96% of the increase in UK household energy bills expected by spring 2023.)

As the former business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng made clear before he took up his current role as chancellor, increasing gas production, both through fracking and from the North Sea, “won’t materially affect the wholesale market price”.

This sentiment has been echoed in a letter to Truss by the heads of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC):

“The UK cannot address this crisis solely by increasing its production of natural gas…Our gas reserves – offshore or from shale – are too small to impact meaningfully the prices faced by UK consumers.”

When confronted with this argument on Radio 4’s Today programme, the recently appointed secretary for levelling up, Simon Clarke, agreed that fracking would not have a significant impact on gas prices in the short term, but said it remained a “sensible” option.

Truss herself has been careful to describe fracking, not in terms of cutting bills, but as a way to ensure energy security. As she made her announcement, Truss told parliament “it is vital we take steps to increase our domestic energy supply”.

Indeed, she added that shale gas could be flowing within “six months”.

In reality, scaling up fracking is expected to take many years, even under the most optimistic scenarios laid out by the industry. 

Again, this case was made earlier this year by Kwarteng in an article for the Mail on Sunday, where he wrote:

“Even if we lifted the fracking moratorium tomorrow, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes – and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside.”

In 2019, UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG), the trade body representing the fracking industry, published projections of potential future scenarios for shale gas extraction in the UK. 

As the chart below shows, UKOOG’s “central” scenario sees fracking producing volumes of gas in 2027 equivalent to just 4.7% of the UK’s gas demand, based on average demand for the period 2015-2020. This assumes that no shale gas is exported overseas, which is unlikely.

The red section shows the % of UK gas demand that could be met with fracking in industry body UKOOG’s “central” scenario by 2027.
The red section shows the % of UK gas demand that could be met with fracking in industry body UKOOG’s “central” scenario by 2027. Gas demand is based on an average value for the period 2015-2020. Source: UKOOG, BEIS. Analysis by Simon Evans for Carbon Brief. Chart by Tom Pearson using Highcharts.

Even in the industry’s best-case scenario, fracking takes several years to get off the ground and produce meaningful volumes of gas. Moreover, these estimates appear to assume no issues with planning processes or protests, of the kind that have plagued fracking sites since their inception.

UKOOG has told MPs that if just 10% of England’s estimated shale gas resources were extracted, it would make the UK “self-sufficient in natural gas for 50 years”. 

This is a commonly cited figure emanating from a 2013 British Geological Survey (BGS) study, which has since been debunked by scientists from the same institution. Their more recent analysis suggests the true “maximum” amount of shale gas available is about 10 times lower than the earlier estimate.

Finally, as the chart below shows, the impact that fracking could have in the short term on curbing gas imports is considerably lower than other measures. 

Notably, focusing instead on accelerating the rollout of renewables, or encouraging people to make simple changes to their home heating systems, would both cut gas use considerably.

Impact of different interventions on UK gas supply and demand in 2025.
Impact of different interventions on UK gas supply and demand in 2025. The red bar shows energy produced from additional shale gas in the UKOOG central fracking scenario, assuming an end to the moratorium on fracking in 2022; 25% of shale gas being exported; no planning or protest issues. The grey bars indicate energy from gas use that could be avoided using other measures. Heat pump installation assumes 450,000 units installed in 2025, 80% gas saving per home. Home insulation acceleration includes an extra 2m homes, and a 20% gas saving. Onshore wind and solar acceleration includes an extra 2GW each; 31%/11% load factor, offsetting 50% efficient combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT). Turning down boiler flow temperature yields a 6% gas saving, turning down thermostats yields a 7.5% saving. Source: UKOOG, calculations by Simon Evans. Analysis by Simon Evans for Carbon Brief. Chart by Tom Pearson using Highcharts.

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Is there any public support for fracking?

Fracking is very unpopular with the British public – and has been for a decade.

The most recent government polling on energy sources found that just 17% of people supported fracking, compared to 45% who opposed it. This can be seen in the chart below.

Responses to government polling on support for fracking in the UK, with opposition shown in red and pink, and support shown in light and dark blue.
Responses to government polling on support for fracking in the UK, with opposition shown in red and pink, and support shown in light and dark blue. Source: BEIS Public Attitudes Tracker, spring 2022.

It is worth noting that this is based on surveys conducted in autumn 2021, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when energy prices were relatively low.

However, more recent polling for the Conservative Environment Network found that less than half of Conservative voters supported fracking, compared to the roughly 90% that supported solar and offshore wind.

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Opponents of fracking are sometimes dismissed as “nimbys”, but polling has shown a range of reasons given for opposition to fracking, including its impact on nature, the risk of earthquakes associated with it and the threat of water contamination.

Truss has made it clear that future fracking will depend on local support. Firms have reportedly been looking into ways to get people on board with operations in their area, including offering them 25% off their energy bills.

Given the location of shale gas deposits in the UK, many of the communities likely to be affected if new fracking operations go ahead are located in “red wall” Labour heartlands in the north of England. Gains in these areas were seen as a key part of the Conservatives’ election success in 2019.

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How likely is it that fracking will take off?

Even with the fracking ban lifted, it is highly unlikely that shale gas could, as suggested by Truss, be contributing to domestic supply “in as soon as six months”, experts tell Carbon Brief.

One major reason for this is that many of the factors that prevented fracking from going ahead before it was subject to a moratorium in 2019 remain in place.

For example, any fracking effort is still likely to face significant local backlash and legal challenges from environmental groups. In March, anti-fracking campaigners told the Guardian they were ready to resume protesting activities in the event of new operations.

People protesting against the possible re-emergence of fracking at the conservative party spring conference, Blackpool, 2022.
People protesting against the possible re-emergence of fracking at the conservative party spring conference, Blackpool, 2022. Credit: kevin walsh / Alamy Stock Photo.

Another potential barrier is the possibility of fracking activities causing earthquake tremors, which have previously forced operations in England to come to a standstill

Prof John Loughhead, industrial chair in clean energy at the University of Birmingham and chief scientific adviser at BEIS from 2016 to 2020, tells Carbon Brief that current limits, which require fracking to stop if earth tremors exceed 0.5 in magnitude, are “very strict” and “within the level of naturally occurring seismic activity in the UK”.

Fracking firms have long pushed for these limits to be loosened, but the government has resisted. Loughhead says that, in his view, “how seismic activity in the region of fracking sites is monitored and controlled would benefit from reconsideration”.

The lack of facilities to safely treat wastewater from fracking also “remains a key showstopper to UK shale gas plans”, says Dr Stuart Gilfillan, reader in geochemistry at the University of Edinburgh:

“Other countries have disposed of such waste waters via deep injection wells. Some of these wells have caused seismic activity in the US and at present such wells are not permitted in the UK. This means that the waste fluids from shale gas wells will need to be treated and safely disposed of at specialist treatment facilities, which recent research has shown are limited in the UK.”

Another factor that could slow fracking efforts is the current system of lengthy planning applications that need to be met before projects can start production.

This potential barrier has been noted by proponents of fracking. On 7 September, a Daily Express article in favour of fracking by columnist Tim Newark said:

“Shale gas firms say it is possible to start pumping energy in a year to 18 months, but that will need central government to overhaul the planning laws that shackle any progress in drilling.”

Speaking to Carbon Brief, Prof Jim Watson, director of the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources, said it was difficult to estimate how much fracking could increase in the UK following the moratorium lift:

“Overall, it is very unclear how much fracking it will lead to. Before the moratorium, the UK was at a very early stage – so I expect it will take quite a long time for it to deliver significant quantities of gas, even if tests are successful in finding sites that are economically and technically viable.” 

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