This article was originally published on 20 September. Today (19 October), Labour plans to use a vote in Parliament to force a draft law that would ban the extraction of shale gas in the UK.
Liz Truss is to lift the moratorium on fracking. But the move will likely be fraught with political difficulties. A New Statesman analysis has found that fracking could begin in the constituencies of 94 Conservative MPs within six months, risking the ire of local residents. Forty-eight Labour-held constituencies could also be affected.
What is fracking
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a form of fossil fuel extraction that involves pumping water and chemicals at high pressure and deep underground into shale rock. The form of natural gas this releases is largely composed of methane and is known as shale gas.
Prior to the moratorium placed on the industry by Boris Johnson’s government in 2019, efforts to extract oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing had floundered because of opposition from local communities. The 2019 Conservative election manifesto pledged not to restart fracking until “the science shows categorically that it can be done safely”. A government report leaked last week suggests there has been little progress made in reducing and predicting the risks of fracking-induced earthquakes – yet this has not held back Truss’s announcement.
The Prime Minister has said fracking will only go ahead in areas where there is local support for it, but it is unclear how that support is to be determined. It was reported in the Guardian that the first drilling licences in almost three years could be issued as early as this week.
Even if fracking is successfully ramped up, the amounts produced could be so small that the effect on energy prices would likely be negligible, given that the output is still expected to be sold at the international market price.
How could fracking affect Liz Truss’s hold on power?
Licences for inland hydrocarbon production extend into 94 Tory-held seats, including 75 in which the area under licence amounts to over 5 per cent of the entire constituency. In 55 Tory seats, active licences cover more than one fifth of them.
Numerous Conservative politicians have made their opposition to fracking clear, with a Guardian survey in March finding that only five Conservative MPs in areas targeted for shale gas extraction were willing to actively support fracking in their constituency. Senior government figures have also voiced their opposition, including Truss’s newly appointed chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. Writing in the Mail on Sunday in March, Kwarteng said those calling for a return to onshore fracking “misunderstand the situation we are in”, and that “no amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European [gas] price any time soon”.
Concerted local opposition could threaten the Tories’ chances in several key battleground seats. Seventeen seats won from Labour in 2019 currently have more than 10 per cent of their total land area under licence. Among those 17 are Stoke-on-Trent Central, which the Tories won from Labour by just 670 votes in the last election.
Fracking licences extend into six Tory-held marginals, including the Red Wall seats of Leigh and Warrington South, where, respectively, 62 per cent and 97 per cent of all land is under licence. Both seats have majorities of around 2,000 votes. The health minister Maria Caulfield’s marginal Lewes constituency in East Sussex is also likely to be affected, with nearly 18 square kilometres licensed for shale energy production.
Other senior MPs likely to feel the heat from their constituents include the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, whose constituency is 90 per cent under licence, the Education Secretary Kit Malthouse (10 per cent), the Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena (20 per cent), and Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers (96 per cent).
In total, 27 Tory MPs with government or party roles could see fracking begin in their constituencies imminently, with 16 ministers facing the possibility of fracking across more than 10 per cent of their seat’s total land area.
Public opposition to fracking could also imperil the Conservatives’ chances of taking key target seats at the next election. Fracking licences extend across more than 45 per cent of the Welsh constituency of Alyn and Deeside, which the Tories lost to Labour by a mere 213 votes in 2019, and across the entire Cheshire seat of Weaver Vale, which was lost by just 562 votes. Anti-fracking sentiment could also risk the Conservatives’ chances of unseating the Labour shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, whose ultra-marginal constituency of Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford is 23 per cent under licence.
An upcoming by-election in West Lancashire could help bring the issue to the political fore. The constituency has been in Labour hands for more than 30 years, and the incumbent MP, Rosie Cooper, has been a staunch fracking opponent – but with 261 sq km of the constituency under licence for fracking, and Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North seat not far away, the subject is likely to be a prominent one.
Does fracking cause earthquakes?
In 2011, a Lancashire earthquake of magnitude 2.3 on was widely attributed to fracking operations. This led the coalition government of the time to introduce a “traffic light” system of regulation in which an immediate 18-hour halt was required if a fracking site triggered earthquakes of magnitude 0.5 or above. The threshold was adopted after a government-commissioned report warned that small tremors could be a sign of larger earthquakes yet to come.
In 2019, a 2.9-magnitude earthquake was recorded near what was the UK’s only active fracking site, in Lancashire. The government subsequently imposed a moratorium on fracking after the industry’s regulator, the Oil & Gas Authority, concluded that it was not possible to predict the likelihood and magnitude of the earthquakes that fracking is known to cause.
Proponents of fracking have criticised the 0.5 magnitude threshold as unduly constraining, since earthquakes of that magnitude are imperceptible at ground level. And industry insiders are now arguing that the government should liberalise both planning rules and safety regulations.
Though fracking-induced tremors can reach magnitudes of four in the US, it is thought that the UK’s outlawing of wastewater reinjection means that quakes in the UK are unlikely to exceed a magnitude of three – similar to levels historically associated with coalmining, and too small to result in structural damage to buildings.
Why is fracking bad for the environment?
The direct consequences of fracking include air, water and noise pollution from the immediate drilling process. Earthquakes could also result in damage to the wells themselves, risking accidental contamination of surrounding rock layers.
More broadly, fracked gas is a carbon-intensive fossil fuel and its extraction is not compatible with the UK’s net zero-emission climate targets, unless the industry can meet tough standards. The independent Committee on Climate Change has warned that this should include limiting methane leaks during production and using shale gas to replace, rather than add to, current gas imports. Unavoidable emissions from a UK shale gas industry would need to be offset by cuts in other areas – something it may not be possible to achieve.
The International Energy Agency said in 2011 that the developing of fracking could put the world on course for a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5°C, far above the “safe” 2°C-increase limit that nations are currently striving to achieve.