Analysis: Could the UK really be on the verge of a fracking revolution?

Third Energy’s fracking site near Ryedale in North Yorkshire. Photo credit: petelovespurple via Flickr.

By Anders Lorenzen

For years, anti-fracking campaigners have successfully managed to fight off extraction of shale gas in the UK. Since the government in 2013 hailed fracking as a future energy revolution, and with a series of tax breaks to follow, no single well has been fracked. Strong opposition from campaigners and local authorities put a stop to any project.  An environmental review also had to be passed; this as there was concern that previous attempts had resulted in local earthquakes, which further delayed proceedings. But now we could be about to see the first fracked gas in the UK. In the North of England, a local council in North Yorkshire has given the go-ahead to a controversial fracking plan put forward by the energy company, Third Energy. The decision by the council was a close vote, with 7 out 11 councillors voting in favour. But campaigners are angry that thousands of complaining letters sent in by locals have been overlooked and ignored. Industry analysts now expect that we could see the first fracked gas by the end of 2016.

Anti- fracking campaigners had been urging the UK government to follow in the steps of New York which banned fracking in 2014, and of US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, calling for the banning of fracking in the whole of the US. Germany and France have also either banned fracking or have put in place moratoriums.  

Technical barriers
Poland was once hailed as having the greatest potential for successful shale gas exploitation in Europe. But events there have shown that Third Energy might not be successful here. In Poland 68 shale gas wells have now been drilled. But not a single well provided the company with the flow of gas necessary for commercial exploitation, and almost every company involved in the process has since given up on the Polish shale gas adventure. It is fair to ask simple questions about the technical feasibility of shale gas extraction, as it has not yet been done in the UK. The pro- fracking arguments being put forward have been based on the US success story. However, the geology of shale formations is very different in the UK from those in the US. This was also one of the reasons why shale gas failed in Poland.

Mixed reactions
However, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has said there are no technical barriers to fracking in the UK. But IET also said this would not do much, if anything, to lower gas prices. This is a counter argument to pro-frackers who said that it would. Simon Harrison, Chair of the IET Energy Policy Panel , said that : “a joint report from the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering revealed no technical reasons not to frack in the UK – but does identify some critical issues to address. Principally, there is the need for coordination and policing of appropriate regulation, to ensure that the environmental and social impacts of fracking in the UK are understood and kept to a minimum”. It is also worth noting that shale gas obtained by fracking is more expensive than conventional gas – and in the UK its final price will be determined by the European gas market. This means that energy prices for the consumer are unlikely to fall significantly as a result of UK fracked gas.  He also said that the jury is still out with regard to how much shale gas potential there actually is in the UK: “we will not know for several years how much shale gas there is under the UK and whether it is suitable for exploitation”.

But UK’s Energy Minister, Andrea Leadsom, has welcomed the decision: “this decision has been made by the local council. We’re very clear that fracking is a fantastic opportunity. It’s good for jobs, the economy and strengthens our energy security”.

The environmental group, Friends of the Earth (FOE) reacted strongly to the decision, with campaigner Simon Bowens stating “7 out of 11 North Yorkshire county councillors voted to approve this fracking application in Ryedale, ignoring the objection of Ryedale District Council itself, as well as thousands of local residents and businesses. “

Unsurprisingly, the anti-fracking group Talk Fracking, headed up by world famous designer, Dame Vivienne Westwood, has come out hard against the decision. Fracking will take place near the village of  Ryedale, and according to Talk Fracking, 99% of its residents opposed the decision to give the green light for fracking. They expressed various concerns, citing noise and light pollution, the substantial increase in traffic, the risks to health, the industrialisation of the countryside and its impact on farming, house prices and tourism .And they claimed that fracking is incompatible with tackling climate change and cannot be adequately regulated.

The head of Talk Fracking, Westwood’s son, Joe Corre, commented: “the economic fallacy of the fracking Ponzi scheme is starting to show its true face with boom and bust towns, ghost wells and bankruptcies. Its potential effect on UK communities like North Yorkshire, the environment, people’s livelihoods, property values and health could be devastating”.

Whether you are anti or pro-fracking, these latest developments are likely to re-awaken the heated debates around fracking, and what happens next will be watched closely. In the wake of the decision by the council, the local anti -fracking group, Frack Free Ryedale has reported having received a surge of new supporters.

Related news:

Analysis: world’s most generous shale gas incentives announced in the UK

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