Five years ago, then prime minister David Cameron called for the UK to “go all out” on fracking, inspired by the booming US shale gas industry. Fracking seemed to offer energy security, lower prices and a boost to the economy. Instead, it faced constant protests and delays. This week, it finally ground to an indefinite halt, as today’s Conservative government imposed a moratorium over safety concerns. The broader context has changed, too. Growing determination to tackle climate change, and Britain’s adoption of net-zero emissions targets by 2050, mean fracking’s time has passed. Investment should instead go to development and widespread deployment of alternative, renewable energy sources.
This publication supported the push to develop Britain’s shale resources. But it warned that more work needed to be done on safety issues, and that local communities needed to be won over to the new technology. The new moratorium follows a report that found that it was still impossible to “accurately predict the probability of tremors associated with fracking”. Compared to the US, UK fracking often happens close to densely populated areas. In August, an earthquake at a site close to Blackpool registered at 250 times the permitted level.
Resistance from communities, meanwhile, remains widespread. Many will welcome the moratorium. While American landowners own whatever is found under their property, natural resources in the UK are Crown property. It thus falls on drilling companies to compensate locals for disturbances. After the August tremor, Cuadrilla, the shale gas explorer, paid just a few hundred pounds to those affected. Two-thirds of respondents in a recent YouGov survey had negative views on fracking.
Fracking’s fall from the government’s grace is also emblematic of the changing tone of the climate change discussion. Shale gas was initially viewed as a replacement for more carbon-heavy coal power, as a “bridge” to a low-emission future. But the 2050 zero-emission pledge by Theresa May’s government — the strictest target in the G20 — has been a game-changer. Widespread adoption of the UK’s shale gas reserves would require production of carbon capture technology on a scale not yet economically feasible. Britain has already largely kicked its coal addiction, and has access to cheap gas from the US and other sources.
The next UK government should focus efforts instead on how to change the resources used by emission-heavy sectors. The Committee on Climate Change report (which informed Mrs May’s 2050 target) called for the widespread decarbonisation of heating, which would mean pivoting away from natural gas. Alternatives include retrofitting pipes to carry hydrogen, or increasing the installation of electric heat pumps.
In both cases, large-scale trials of the technology are yet to commence. The cost of switching will be too high for many homeowners as well. So sustained funding will be needed to incentivise individuals to switch over to greener energy solutions. There is a clear space here for joint private and public funding programmes.
The moratorium may not technically be the end of fracking. Future technological advances may make it possible to predict the intensity of tremors. Carbon capture technology may also become sufficiently advanced to counteract the effects of burning gas. Until then, it is incumbent on whichever government comes to power to support solutions that are both safer and cleaner. There are no good reasons to delay any further.