LIZ Truss’s decision to lift the ban on fracking in England was based on “desperation and dogma”, a leading expert has said.
Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of geology at the University of Edinburgh, warned that decades of progress in the battle against climate change “could be reversed and thrown away for a few years of slightly cheaper gas for a few people, and a lot of profits for even fewer people”.
Truss breaks manifesto pledge
On September 8 – the day of Queen Elizabeth’s death – Truss told MPs that she would lift the ban on fracking, saying that “could get gas flowing as soon as six months from now”.
The Prime Minister’s lifting of the ban represents a direct break from the manifesto on which the Tory party she leads was elected.
In the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives – then led by Boris Johnson – pledged: “We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.”
Truss, who has taken power after an internal leadership election, has not put her plans to lift the ban on fracking to the public.
The Scottish Government has said that it has no plans to issue fracking licences north of the Border.
Haszeldine wrote: “Shale gas is methane, a fossil fuel with high carbon emissions, [and] fracking has already been trialled unsuccessfully in the UK and its re-emergence is not founded on new evidence which can materially change results.
“This is not an act based on data but on desperation and dogma.”
He added: “No wonder then that the UK Government is wary of stating that the agreement of local residents is needed before fracking can go ahead … there is widespread scepticism and mistrust among the communities who have been affected by proposed drilling.”
Furthermore, an internal UK Government report leaked to the Guardian said that, far from showing that fracking can be done “safely”, there are still large challenges around predicting and handling the earthquakes which could result from the practice.
Current rules in place say that drilling must stop if earthquakes of 0.5 or above are measured on the Richter scale. However, reports in The Telegraph say that the Tory government is being lobbied to increase this limit to as high as 4-magnitude, which would match the US.
‘280 million years too late’
Writing for the Conservation, Professor Haszeldine said that comparisons to North America did not hold water. “If the UK wants to develop a major US-style fracking industry, it is 280 million years too late,” he said.
Haszeldine explained: “What gas and oil there is [in the UK], is not at the same extreme underground pressures found in more successful shale fields of the US and Canada. These high pressures are a sign there is lots of easily-extractable fuel …
“The UK did have a lot of onshore shale oil and gas, a long time ago. But because the country has the wrong geological history, that oil and gas has long gone, flowed out along the abundant faults and fractures. American and Canadian geology is much simpler, and that’s why their shale gas is still there.”
Haszeldine further said that, despite government-commissioned reports which predicted that many tens of years worth of gas supply may exist below UK soil, “usually, after more detailed work, the commercially viable reserves are no more than 10% of the original estimate”.
“There simply isn’t enough gas,” he wrote.
In 2019, Will Meredith and Colin Snape, two energy experts from the University of Nottingham, looked into the reality of government estimates on the amount of gas that could be extracted from The Bowland – the UK’s “largest and most economically viable shale”.
They wrote: “The 2013 [UK Government] study estimated that Bowland shale alone could provide the UK with up to 50 years of gas at current demand. But it turns out this was a big over-estimate …
“We estimate that the maximum reserves for the Bowland Shale are around 200 standard trillion cubic feet – that’s less than a sixth of the 2013 estimate of around 1300 trillion cubic ft.
“Assuming 10% of the reserves are economically recoverable – a fairly optimistic scenario – this corresponds to no more than ten years’ UK gas supply at current demand.”
The water problem
Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals at extreme pressure to fracture rock to allow gas to escape, hence the possibility of earthquakes.
Once used, this water returns to the surface full of toxins and radioactive material, presenting clear problems for disposal.
A 2017 study from experts in Edinburgh found “that the high level of salinity and concentration of naturally occurring radioactive material in UK wastewaters will be problematic to treat for disposal into a freshwater environment”.
The need for extremely high levels of water – around 15 million litres per well, according to the American Petroleum Institute – also present an issue with water scarcity and droughts having hit the UK in 2022.