A few years ago, people were making a lot of optimistic claims about fracking. They looked at the success of the shale industry in the US and hoped that fracking might bring similar benefits to the UK. But after years of failed attempts to establish this new fossil fuel industry, the time has now come for the controversial practice of fracking to be dropped once and for all. It’s not economically beneficial, and not in line with our world-leading commitment to end the UK’s contribution to climate change by reaching net zero by 2050 and not popular with our constituents.
It was once thought that, as long as Government and industry had strong safety and environmental safeguards in place, fracking could have a place within a diverse energy mix. Advocates often cited America’s apparent newfound energy independence, stating that we too could benefit from the US-style fracking boom that saw it replace Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil producer last year. But the reality has turned out differently.
According to the UK Energy Research Centre, “any talk of shale gas making the UK self-sufficient again, let alone allowing significant exports, is far-fetched”. Compared to North America, the shale geology of the UK is considerably more complex and drilling costs are substantially higher. It’s estimated that to replace even 50% of our gas imports we would need over 6,000 new wells, and the UK’s population density and geography, not least in relation to water resources, makes that extremely difficult.
The potential to extract shale gas from fracking in the UK could be also be significantly lower than first thought. Analysis from Nottingham University and the British Geological Survey found that it could potentially provide less than ten years’ worth of gas, a fraction of previous estimates. Just this week, the National Audit Office reported on the lack of progress made by the fracking industry. It was once thought that the industry would be worth £33 billion with over 60,000 jobs. But only three of the twenty wells expected by 2020 have materialised at a cost to the taxpayer of £32 million. There is simply no real economic upside to sustaining such a low-opportunity industry.
Furthermore, shale gas is not a particularly clean source of energy. Shale is still a fossil fuel, which releases carbon dioxide and contributes to climate change. And its extraction can lead to the leakage of methane, which is another climate-warming gas. Although shale is usually cleaner than coal, the UK barely burns coal for electricity any more, with 2019 seeing the first coal power-free fortnight. This Conservative Government has made the UK a world leader in clean growth. Ahead of hosting the UN climate summit in Glasgow next year, it’s time to show leadership once again by ending this new fossil fuel industry.
Instead, we should support a rapid expansion of clean energy, particularly renewables. The renewable industry already supports over 400,000 jobs and now offers the potential to reduce energy bills. The latest offshore wind farms were commissioned without the need for subsidy. Internationally, the market is increasingly opting for clean energy, as global investment in new renewable energy is on course to reach £2.1 trillion by the end of this decade. Our climate targets will soon compel us to turn away from gas altogether. Fracking assets would quickly become obsolete and investors wouldn’t get their money back. We should announce new offshore wind auctions to make the UK the ‘Saudia Arabia of wind power’.
It’s also become clear that fracking is woefully unpopular. Local residents often oppose fracking projects due to concerns about noise and air pollution, wildlife disturbance and water contamination. Regular tremors, even some damaging nearby properties, have caused most fracking operations to halt. Recent polling from the Conservative Environment Network, shows just 37% of Conservatives back fracking, which is nearly as unpopular as coal. Conservatives believe in giving local communities the final say over what happens in their area. Fracking shouldn’t be the exception.
Fracking is a not an industry of the future. It’s proved nearly impossible to become established. And because of our climate targets, it wouldn’t be around very long even if it did start producing shale gas. It’s controversial, unpopular, and the economic arguments are no longer realistically viable. The scale and urgency of climate change means we should only be investing in industries and technologies that are compatible with a net zero world. If we’re serious about being a global environmental leader, then it’s time to stop fracking around.