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Fracking sector is struggling to make headway, says watchdog

Progress on establishing the commercial viability of extracting shale gas in England has been slower than the government expected, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises public spending.

In 2016 the Cabinet Office expected up to 20 fracked wells by mid-2020 but only three wells have been fracked to date.

While the NAO report only covers England, the sector has repeatedly come under fire in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party has effectively banned fracking. Gas exploration company Cuadrilla was finally given the go-ahead to start extraction at a site in Lancashire last year but the site has been repeatedly besieged by protesters.

The Government has attributed the slow progress of the industry in the UK to low public acceptance. Operators also say the time to gain regulatory permits and planning permissions, coupled with the current ‘traffic light system’ for managing fracking-induced earthquakes (which is more stringent than other countries), is hindering the industry’s development.

The NAO also found that operations have proved costly for local authorities and police forces, which manage anti-fracking protests, traffic disruption and general public safety at the sites.

The report estimated that at least £32.7m had been spent by public bodies since 2011, although the full costs are not known.

The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) believes the UK can still meet its climate commitments while supporting a domestic fracking industry. The Committee on Climate Change meanwhile says development of carbon capture, usage and storage technology is critical to this because it would provide a way to use fossil fuels, including shale gas, in a low-carbon way.

In September the UK’s offshore oil and gas industry outlined how it intends to cut carbon emissions from its operations through greater use of carbon capture technologies.

Three local forces have incurred costs; Lancashire Constabulary, North Yorkshire Police, and Nottinghamshire Police.

Lancashire Constabulary reported that between 25 and 100 officers were “directly involved” in the policing of fracking sites every day between January 2017 and June 2019, at a cost of £11.8m.

Public concern about fracking operations centres around greenhouse gas emissions, groundwater pollution and fracking-induced earthquakes.

Francis Egan, the chief executive of Cuadrilla, the only company to have fracked a well in the UK, said it was right that the government invests in a “major national resource”. But he recognised that the industry needs to work on building public support.

In August this year, a tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale was detected at a Cuadrilla fracking site near Blackpool, the largest ever recorded at the site. Fracking has been indefinitely suspended since.

“The Tory-Lib Dem coalition and now the Tory government have wasted millions pushing an industry that is unpopular across the UK and fiercely opposed locally,” said shadow business and energy secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey.

“Fracking threatens air and water quality, and it contributes to the climate crisis. And as this report reveals, the Government’s plan for making fracking sites safe after they’ve been used is unclear and untested.

“Let me be crystal clear, Labour will ban fracking immediately,” she added.

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