To frack or not to frack? That is the question. Because the price of wholesale gas is sending energy bills sky high and Vladimir Putin is weaponising Russia’s vast fossil fuel supplies, it is right that every avenue of lowering energy bills and increasing Britain’s energy security is being considered. Despite all this, the case for fracking remains weak. It is unpopular, expensive and, most importantly, unlikely to yield enough gas to make a difference to either energy prices or our security.
The UK will continue to use gas as we transition to net zero, albeit less and less. Gas is gas. It is not more damaging to the environment if it’s drilled in the UK rather than halfway across the world and shipped here. Given industry regulations and the fact that it’s produced closer to home, the carbon footprint of our domestic gas is less than imported gas. The government was right to invest in our domestic industries in the Energy Security Strategy earlier this year.
But what could the contribution of fracking be? The industry’s best projections show that in five years, fracking could provide 5 per cent of UK gas. Previous reports commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which remain unpublished but were seen by government advisers at the time, point to there being as little as two years of the UK’s total gas supply available as shale gas which could be extracted through fracking. It’s not enough to make a significant difference to our energy security. Whereas a national energy efficiency drive to lower the average Energy Performance Certificate rating of each home to C instead of D would cut UK gas demand by a more impressive 7.4 per cent. It’s certainly not enough to make a difference on price. In the first half of 2022, gas production in the North Sea increased by 26 per cent. Yet gas prices have not gone down. Gas is sold at the global market price, and the UK’s supply is not enough to make a difference to global prices.
The main reason fracking is so unpopular is that it’s not perceived as safe. In 2019, after an earthquake measured 2.9 on the Richter scale, the government introduced a moratorium on fracking because we couldn’t accurately predict or assess the tremors the process might cause. And as the new British Geological Survey review ordered by the government found, we still cannot accurately predict these tremors. In Britain, we have a much higher population density than the US, where fracking has played a significant part in the energy supply. Fracking would have to take place much closer to people’s homes. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that fracking is only carried out if it has the consent of the local community.
This is what was promised by the Prime Minister in her leadership election. But despite lifting the moratorium, ministers have not been able to tell us how this consent will be defined (what counts as the local community, for example) and how it will be measured. Instead, there has been a suggestion that fracking companies will need to produce attractive investment packages to incentivise local communities to host fracking sites. I have no problem with incentives for hosting energy production, but that is not the same thing as consent. If communities wish to reject a fracking site on their doorstep, despite the investment package, they should have a legitimate route to doing so.
Scepticism about the latest attempt to kick-start fracking is neither “hysterical” nor “Luddite”, but considered. It is based on true conservative beliefs in evidenced-based policy, empowering local communities and focusing our resources on the solutions that will give us the most bang for the taxpayer buck. New renewables are nine times cheaper than electricity generated by gas power stations, and insulation can conserve gas and cut people’s energy bills by hundreds of pounds. We must go further and faster with building new wind and solar power capacity, and launch a national drive to insulate the UK’s nearly 19 million energy-inefficient homes. Simplifying planning rules for rooftop solar panels and speeding up the deployment of wind power will reduce our reliance on gas and lower prices.
These net zero solutions, and more like them, are key to ending the spiral of high gas prices. It’s a popular path that unites the majority of people, which will bring bills down while creating jobs and new industries. Fracking is a divisive distraction from this and will not deliver for the British people. If we are to lift the ban, our focus and efforts must remain resolutely on net zero and ensure any new system respects communities’ right to say no.