Fracking off? Too little, too late.

(Photo: Greenpeace UK)

By William Kilgannon – Regular Contributor

The United Kingdom’s physical landscape yields itself to contain an abundance of natural resources. Although exact quantities of natural gas remain ambiguous, the issue of fracking has been widely discussed as an opportune moment to exploit some of the physical advantages our landscape possesses beneath our feet.

Gas prices have steadily been increasing, resulting in the wholesale price of gas increasing by 335% since May 2021. However, since the reignition of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine the debate concerning fracking has been reignited as global energy prices have skyrocketed. The recent trends have exacerbated household bills resulting in many families across the UK turning down their heating and having to make sacrifices elsewhere to meet the extortionate prices. The government has aimed to combat the soaring prices for UK consumers through offering UK households a £400 discount on fuel bills with an extra £250 for those on benefits. As well as the Household Support Fund, Warm House Discount, local council’s access to a ‘discretionary fund’, and a 25% windfall tax on oil and gas producers; the UK government has clearly tried to pull out all the stops to tackle the soaring prices for UK households. However, when the UK receives less than 5% of it’s gas from Russia, how has such a small figure sent households and ministers into such a spin?

Because of Europe. Russia is the predominant European gas supplier, providing 40% of the EU’s total gas. This therefore has resulted in a significant impact on European markets and the price of gas on the continent. With the combination of sanctions and Putin’s mobilisation of the gas pipeline threatened to be cut off, European nations have scurried, looking for alternative gas suppliers. We however are at a lesser threat to Putin’s mercy since 44% of the UK’s gas comes from the North Sea and East Irish Sea whilst much of the remainder comes from mainly Norway and Netherlands. Despite this, the close proximity of our markets to that of European ones has meant that we have been indirectly affected by Putin’s actions. We are therefore at Putin’s mercy due to his influence on pricing in global markets. Our reliance on imports and their impact felt have thus reignited the conversation surrounding fracking.

Kwasi Kwarteng the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in February reaffirmed his desire to pursue the net-zero targets of 2050 most effectively by chasing renewable energy sources. It is largely agreed across party allegiances that renewable energy sources are the future of energy supply in this country should we aim to commit to our international commitments. Despite Kwarteng’s commitment to pursuing greener methods of energy supply, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has encouraged the Prime Minister to float the idea of diversifying our energy supply, especially through fracking. Since this, Kwarteng has changed his tune, ordering a review into this measure and claiming in the House of Commons that ‘it didn’t necessarily make any sense to concrete over the wells. We’re still in conversations about that.’ Suggestions that the backbenches of the Conservative Party have pushed such a review into fracking are not entirely unfeasible, especially as Boris Johnson aims to muster some sort of support from the party following the damaging result of the ‘No Confidence’ result which evidenced a large disconnect between the party.

Fracking has been advertised as a ‘greener’ alternative to providing gas than the burning of fossil fuels however Labour are not at all convinced by the proposals. Labour attempted to ban fracking in England with an Environment Bill in May 2021 however it was defeated. Clearly the Conservative Party are keeping the idea of fracking on the table despite not formalising any plan of action … yet.

Some arguments for fracking are baseless; The UK Onshore Oil and Gas lobby group described opposition to fracking as ‘illogical’ claiming that Russia’s war crimes are being funded by Europe’s reliance to Russian gas. In truth however, the funding of Russia’s war crimes have come from a multitude of influences. Western companies, despite now removing themselves from Russia, have funded Russia’s arsenal for decades whilst the world paid Russia $700 million a day for their oil. The claim that we should therefore adopt fracking as a way of subverting our reliance on natural gas is also misplaced since, as outlined earlier, the UK barely relies on Russian imports of natural gas. Fracking as a means of operation would take roughly 2 years before operations could begin therefore suggesting that fracking as a short-term method of response to the war is not entirely accurate, especially as Russia’s military is operating rapidly. Fracking would thus be a long-term investment to diversifying our energy supply which would need extensive European and global coordination to impact the global markets.

Norway has led the way in doing the opposite, through promoting greener energy decisions. It recently announced that it’s sovereign wealth fund (which is worth roughly 1 trillion dollars) is turning its attention away from oil and gas exploration companies across the globe. Following their decision, global oil and gas shares declined. This however leads to a problem too. Should countries across the world rightly adopt greener, renewable energy methods, the decreasing price of oil and natural gas could encourage countries that are focusing more on the economic benefits over the environmental benefits to prioritise slightly more outdated energy methods such as fracking and drilling. Despite this however, it should be the UK and European governments alike that leads the world into a new era of energy supply.

Another case against fracking is the disruption that it brings to our landscape. The findings that fracking has led to minor, localised earthquakes or tremors has been widely publicised and the disruption that big machinery will bring to the countryside will undoubtedly be opposed by Members of Parliaments in the ‘shires’. In addition, despite a 2011 House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) concluding that hydraulic fracking does not pose a risk to underground water aquifers, in Wyoming, America, fracking operations have resulted in chemical contamination of underground water aquifers.

Since fracking is an enormous logistical project it would cause a substantial problem should operations be rolled back after the typical 20 years of production to pursue net-zero targets. Companies investing in fracking operations could cause a crowding out effect where companies insist on investing increasingly more money into fracking rather than diversifying our energy methods through greener, renewable strategies. This would make it more difficult for government to encourage investors to pull funding out of fracking to pursue their international net-zero commitments.

However, in a context of a cost-of-living crisis and doubts over energy security as global prices skyrocket, fracking would seem like the suitable alternative to ease tension and drive down prices. It was, but not anymore.

In short, the UK has missed the opportunity to use fracking as a means of supplying the country with natural gas. Our agreements and reliance on overseas gas diverted our attention to the advantages that our own natural landscape possessed. I am not in opposition to fracking as a rule. Should we have undertaken proceedings since the 1950s like America did, fracking would have been beneficial to the UK economy, providing jobs whilst decreasing foreign expenditure. Such money could have been located to the typically poorer towns that reside next to large quantity of natural gas encouraging growth thus ‘levelling up’. Instead, it seems as though we have missed the boat.

The technological advances of recent years have provided cleaner and cheaper ways to provide energy, resulting in fracking being painted in a light of a dirty, outdated form of producing energy. Such adjectives would not have been used in the 1950s or 1960s, instead fracking would have been an innovative and promising new project despite its unsustainable nature.

The fracking project would have been an excellent addition to diversifying our energy supply however we are simply too late. That opportunity has passed us by and it is more beneficial to look at the opportunities that renewable energy sources provide in securing our long-term energy supply for the future.

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