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Why fracking in the UK should remain a fantasy

Banging the drum for a technology that won't work in the UK is a dangerous distraction at a time of crisis.

By Philippa Nuttall

As Europe grapples with global energy price rises and the need to wean itself off Russian gas, certain right-wing politicians are having a field day suggesting that fracking is the answer in Britain. Their assertions don’t stack up, and anybody who claims otherwise is either deluded or lying, but their drip feed of exaggerated and misleading claims worryingly seems to be getting increasing attention in Westminster.

The former Brexit party leader Nigel Farage is pushing the fracking agenda, along with Tory Brexiteer cronies such as Steve Baker. The link to Brexit is important. Recall the falsehoods uttered in the name of leaving the EU. Think of Farage’s poster showing a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all”. He is now adapting a similar tactic with fracking and climate action.

“This shale treasure under our feet is owned by us all, with a value of trillions of pounds,” extolled Farage in the Mail on Sunday this weekend. “We can slash our energy bills and create a sovereign wealth fund for future generations. Not using our shale gas amounts to gross negligence.” He uttered this nonsense in a full-page article in which he launched his call for a referendum on the UK’s plans to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050. 

The US has largely successfully extracted oil and natural gas from shale rock underground, but the UK is not the US. For a start it is about 40 times smaller, meaning the disruption caused by fracking would be a whole lot bigger, with drilling much closer to people’s houses. Plus, the UK’s shale geology is considerably more complex. On top of these issues are other hitches such as that the process can cause water pollution and that the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

Exploratory drilling in Lancashire, by the company Cuadrilla, was halted in 2011 after fracking caused two earth tremors. Other attempts to frack in the UK have been stopped, largely thanks to public opposition. During the 2019 election campaign the Conservative government saw the madness of such efforts and slapped a moratorium on the process.

But the energy crisis and now the war in Ukraine means opportunists are once again trying their luck. Hopefully Boris Johnson will hold his nerve and realise that energy efficiency and renewables are the real solutions to soaring bills and climate chaos. Deciding otherwise would be expensive folly — fracking has cost public bodies more than £32m since 2011 with nothing to show for it.

However, Johnson’s position is no longer clear. The former Brexit minister David Frost writes in the Sun that the UK should “get cracking on fracking” and the tabloid is reporting that fracking sites in Lancashire that were due to be concreted over next week will now be “used for further research”.

Only vested interests would reap any reward if the industry were to be allowed. In this context it is probably worth mentioning that Baker leads the Net Zero Scrutiny Group in the UK parliament and, according to research published by the NGO DeSmog today, has received £5,000 from Neil Record. Record is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Forum, whose founder and board member Nigel Lawson recently said that “global warming is not a problem”. 

The arguments against fracking are not new, but it seems that in this case we need to employ the first rule of any marketing campaign: repeat, repeat, repeat.

First, even if fracking were successful it would not bring down prices since the UK is part of the global gas market and would remain vulnerable to price shocks overseas.

Second, British voters do not want fracking.

Third, as the price of wind and solar continue to drop, fracking is a costly business. Solar is now 88 per cent cheaper than a decade ago.

Fourth, fracking would do nothing in the very short term and in the medium term would do little to increase domestic gas production. Simon Evans at Carbon Brief estimates that even in the best-case scenario, fracking would supply less than 5 per cent of UK gas needs over the next five years.

And if you still aren't convinced, this is what John Browne, former head of the energy giant BP, had to say in 2019: "Fracking in the UK doesn’t make much sense. I think it was a test to see if it worked. We probably don’t need to do it."

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