The UK is 280 million years late for a fracking boom
Why lifting the ban on shale gas exploration is contradicted by geological knowledge, public opinion, and climate change action.
In some respects, the UK has been among the world’s most successful countries at taking action against climate change over the past few decades. Yet that progress 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.
That’s because new prime minister Liz Truss has pledged to overturn a 2019 ban on "fracking" for shale gas in England. It’s true that the transition to low-carbon energy was never going to be easy. But shale gas is methane, a fossil fuel with high carbon emissions, while 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.
Out of gas
The first problem is there simply isn’t enough gas. For fracking to become a large-scale viable business in the UK, a very large geological resource of shale gas is essential. The enthusiasm for shale gas trials in the UK between 2011 and 2019 was founded on government-commissioned reports from the British Geological Survey (BGS), which predicted that many tens of years worth of gas supply may exist beneath central and northern England, south-east England and central Scotland.
But such reports are explicitly speculative, and always calculate the maximum possible resource. Usually, after more detailed work, the commercially viable reserves are no more than 10 per cent of the original estimate.
In the UK, results from exploratory drilling were mostly bad. The drilling triggered multiple small and several medium earthquakes. And to add further insult, rock samples were analysed and found to contain only small quantities of extractable gas or oil.
What gas and oil there is, 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 idea that the UK has a similar huge potential shale gas resource assumed its shales had not already generated gas – that the potential is still to come. However, laboratory results show that gas has already been generated in these rocks in the geological past. Over millions of years, Britain’s landmass has been buried, lifted back up, buried again and eroded. This complex geological history has provided many opportunities for gas to leak away through the country’s many faults and cracks so that only the dregs remain. If the UK wants to develop a major US-style fracking industry, it is 280 million years too late.
Widespread scepticism and mistrust
Even if enough gas is discovered, there is the huge challenge of bringing in specialist equipment and skilled people to do the drilling and development. To produce abundant gas for the country will require thousands of boreholes over ten years. Disposing of huge amounts of salty and radioactive wastewater represents another really big challenge.
No wonder then that the UK government is wary of stating that the agreement of local residents is needed before fracking can go ahead. Because fracking has had a difficult history in the UK, and was only ever imposed top-down by the David Cameron government, there is widespread scepticism and mistrust among the communities who have been affected by proposed drilling.
Those doubts can perhaps be converted to acceptance by prolonged dialogue, providing better information, and building up trust – but that takes years. Another option proposed by some shale developers would be to make direct cash payments to local residents and communities – up to six per cent of initial revenues in some cases. The US shows that sharing the financial spoils can provide quick routes to opinion change. But strong regulation is needed to prevent shale developers from paying a community to support development, then rapidly exiting an area once the gas has been depleted, and abandoning the consequences. A fracked borehole drilled in 2019 near Preston is still not plugged.
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.
Leave stones unturned
Solar and wind make cheaper electricity than gas, and methane leaks are measurably warming the world. The International Energy Agency and IPCC both state very clearly that fossil fuel production needs to decrease rapidly. Why would the UK trash its best international reputation and future world-leading clean energy industries? Fracking in the UK has multiple commercial and technical challenges which may or may not be overcome, has an immense public perception legacy to convert, and the environmentally acceptable pathway is very unclear.
The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.
This article was originally published in The Conversation on 15 September 2022.
Picture credits: pipes - Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg; cows - Christopher Furlong/Getty; protests - Danny E. Martindale/Getty