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Cuadrilla shale gas extraction site at Preston New Road, Lancashire, near Blackpool

Fracking’s future: drop or drill?

Image credit: Getty Images

Fracking in the UK has been on hold for over a year, but could it be revived as the country seeks to lessen its reliance on imported fuel while ensuring that the lights and the heat stay on for homes and businesses?

The bulk of the UK’s imported fuel comes from Norway. Around 17.5 million tonnes of crude oil and 1.7 million tonnes of natural gas were imported from there in 2019. But as the Nordic country aims to achieve net-zero ahead of Europe’s 2050 goal, the UK’s fuel security could be affected by policy changes and reductions in fossil fuel production from its main supplier – changes that it would have no control over. Does this justify reviving the fracking debate and pushing the environmental concerns of this controversial technology to one side?

There’s no getting away from the fact that fracking, justifiably, does not have a good reputation. The negative impacts on groundwater and air quality are proven and have been widely reported. Added to that is the increased risk of earthquakes caused in the areas surrounding fracking sites. In fact, the last active fracking site in the UK was suspended at the end of August 2019 after activity by Cuadrilla Resources at its Preston New Road site in Lancashire caused a magnitude 2.9 earthquake.

However, fuel security is an important issue and there’s no way that today’s technological society could function if the UK was to be hit by regular power cuts, as it was back in the 1970s. Then there is the issue of price to the end consumer and keeping energy for homes and businesses affordable.

Jasmin Cooper, research associate at the Sustainable Gas Institute at Imperial College London, says that an argument could be made for shale gas as it could boost domestic production and thus reduce the UK’s reliance on imports. She also points out that shale gas wells are less productive than offshore conventional wells, on a well-to-well basis, and they produce the majority of gas in the first few years post-completion. The production lifespan, and total gas produced, could be extended with more fracking, but it would mean a large number of wells would need to be drilled to match the quantities of gas currently imported.

“Based on the experience of the USA, it took over a decade for the shale gas industry to reach significant levels of gas production. The UK’s shale gas industry is still in the exploratory stage, with no commercially operating wells,” she says.

Given the UK’s plans for transition to net zero, and looking at where the fracking industry is today, it is unlikely that shale gas can meet the country’s fuel security needs in the short term, because it would need to expand rapidly from exploration to commercial scale in the next few years. So instead of looking at lifting the moratorium in 2021, critics of fossil-fuel production say the UK should be looking at bigger investments in cleaner and more sustainable alternatives.

Gina Dowding, a Lancaster City Councillor and the Green Party’s spokesperson on fracking and fossil fuels, emphasises that the best way to ensure fuel security is to reduce dependency on all fossil fuels.

“There is no need for fracking within the necessary speedy transition to a fully renewable energy future, which is already under way,” she explains. “We have barely a decade to complete the transition. Fracking would tie us into unnecessary and expensive infrastructure of the past.”

As the UK moves to a net-zero future built on renewable, clean energy sources, investing in fracking again when the moratorium ends would certainly be a big step back in the wrong direction. Especially when the gains made in the renewable energy sector have been so significant, with the cost of offshore wind power dramatically falling in just five years and the potential for electricity storage technologies via batteries now developing at a rapid pace.

“There is also potential for green hydrogen via hydrogen fuel cells to meet the needs of some of the hard-to-reach sectors such as freight and public transport. Fracking does not have a role in this transition,” Dowding says.

What, then, are the best alternatives the UK should be investing in to provide the fuel security the country needs?

Alongside further investments in wind and solar, Cooper also cites hydrogen, as well as biomethane, as good low-carbon replacements for natural gas. “If gaseous fuels are important in the future UK energy landscape, then both could be important. Biomethane can be used as a direct replacement in the UK’s gas grid but retrofitting would be needed if the grid were to transport hydrogen. Both can be produced domestically, which would reduce the need for energy imports, and can be produced through a variety of synthesis routes, which could also help boost energy security.”

In order to achieve net zero, energy efficiency as well as security is a big issue that needs addressing. The heating of the UK’s homes is one of the biggest fuel burners and carbon emitters, so any discussion of fuel security has to look at how to make buildings more energy efficient so they need less fuel to heat them.

Dowding explains: “By far the best alternative is investment in energy efficiency measures: energy efficiency in our buildings and our millions of homes at scale is not only necessary for the long term, it will help achieve zero carbon the sooner these are started. Retrofitting our homes will create thousands of skilled jobs and training opportunities, tackle fuel poverty, deal with respiratory problems, and create more comfortable homes.”

Simple measures such as better insulation and taking advantage of opportunities available through the Green Homes Grant scheme can be a quick step forward in making the UK’s buildings more energy efficient.

It seems that the fracking debate should no longer be up for discussion and it isn’t something we need to ensure fuel security as we transition to a net-zero future. It would just extend our ties to our fossil fuel past.

 

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