Election year move still leaves important questions
Brussels — It was a shocking reversal in British politics: Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party unveiled a halt to fracking in the UK with a policy that would essentially stop fracking in England. The move was similar to the Scottish government’s announcement in October that it would not support fracking there.
It’s nonetheless hard to overstate the shift in England. Prime Minister Johnson, as the Guardian noted, had previously called fracking “glorious news for humanity,” and had called on the country to “leave no stone unturned, or unfracked.” But with elections looming, the Tories were the only major party hanging on to support an issue that had become decidedly unpopular. Johnson clearly wanted to keep fracking out of the electoral debate.
So for many observers, the decision smacked of desperate politics. The government justified its position with a new study by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) pointing to “unacceptable” earthquake risks associated with drilling, and will not allow fracking “until compelling new evidence” shows that it can be done in a “safe and sustainable way.”
Since there is no safe and sustainable way to frack–in the UK or anywhere else–this would seem to spell the end of fracking in the UK. However, fracking company Cuadrilla has already announced that it will provide the oil and gas regulators with new data to address the concerns of communities near active fracking sites, with the hopes that the moratorium can be lifted.
Several important questions concerning the nitty-gritty details of this temporarily moratorium remain. That’s why UK’s anti-fracking campaigners are treating the current situation with caution.
Definition of fracking— what might still be allowed?
While activists took the government’s sudden announcement as a good sign, there are questions about specifically which processes are covered by the moratorium. Would acidization be covered by the current moratorium? Can fracking companies get around the moratorium by using less water? What will happen with the existing licenses of companies like Cuadrilla or plastic producer Ineos, which owns the majority of shale licenses in England and Scotland? It remains unclear how the new UK government will deal with such matters.
Importing fracked gas
A freeze or ban on drilling could merely shift fossil fuel companies to rely on imports— meaning that more fracking in other places around the world, including areas in the United States like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The US already exports LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) to the UK.
On top of that, petrochemical giant Ineos has established an additional trans-atlantic supply chain of fracked “wet gas” (ie ethane, propane and butane) from Pennsylvania that it uses for the production of virgin plastic at Grangemouth, Scotland. Neither the moratorium in England nor in Scotland will affect these existing supply chains. As long as they exist (and even expand), the question remains how long it will take until someone asks the question again if it isn’t “safer, more sustainable and cheaper” to frack the hydrocarbons in the UK.
The UK government calls its new policy an “effective moratorium,” which means in the short term it is “unlikely to approve future Hydraulic Fracture Plans unless new evidence is presented.” The government added that it will “not be taking forward proposed planning reforms in relation to shale gas,” and has “a presumption against issuing any further Hydraulic Fracturing Consents.”
But at the same time–and in very same statement— Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Andrea Leadson also sent this message: “The Government continues to recognise the importance of natural gas as a source of secure and affordable energy as we aim to reach net zero emissions by 2050.”
A full, comprehensive ban cannot see fossil fuels as having a role in the country’s energy future. And until that vision is realized, the movement to ban fracking still has work to do.