Fracking in the UK

The UK contains shale formations bearing oil in the south and gas in the north. The Bowland Shale in the north of England is thought to contain about 1,300 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of gas. 

However, only a small proportion of gas in the Bowland can be extracted –perhaps only about 4%. Compared with North America, the shale geology of the UK is considerably more complex, faults are numerous, and drilling costs are substantially higher..

Despite this, proponents of UK fracking said that it could duplicate the US experience and lead to a cheap energy boom. The Conservative Government led by David Cameron called for the UK to go ‘all out’ for shale, removing the final say over whether projects could go ahead from local councils.

Fracking in Louisiana
America has experienced a cheap energy boom thanks to shale gas. Image: Creative Commons Licence, Daniel Foster

Fracking not economically viable

The Institute of Directors calculates that the UK shale industry could support 74,000 jobs, but this is not independently corroborated.

Exploratory drilling in Lancashire, by Cuadrilla, was halted in 2011 after fracking caused two earth tremors. Surveys in Balcombe, Sussex were also carried out by Cuadrilla, opposed by local and environmental protesters, although plans to frack were dropped.

A turning point came in April 2016 when North Yorkshire council approved Third Energy’s proposal to frack an existing well in Kirby Misperton, despite objections from the majority of the local population. However, long-running questions over the viability of a British fracking industry, as well as high levels of public opposition saw a moratorium placed on the technique during the 2019 election campaign, effectively killing the industry. A string of earthquakes at fracking sites appear to have been the final straws for ministers.

A report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) concluded that shale gas would not reduce energy prices or reduce the UK’s reliance on gas imports. It also pointed to the highly interconnected nature of European gas markets as a reason why fracking would not deliver cheaper fuel prices.


Is fracking an environmental threat?

Fracking has been linked to a number of issues including:

  • groundwater contamination
  • air pollution
  • surface water pollution
  • health problems.

Research supports some of these claims. For example, researchers found evidence of dissolved methane in drinking water wells in New York and Pennsylvania associated with shale-gas extraction. Methane is flammable, so can cause explosions. 

An earthquake of 3.0 magnitude occurred in March 2014 in Ohio within 1km of active fracking operations. Tremors of similar strength were also seen in the UK, with an event at Cuadrilla’s Blackpool site registering at 2.9 in August 2019.

In response to this tremor, the Government commissioned the UK’s Oil and Gas Authority to assess the viability of the industry. It said that future seismic activity could not be ruled out.

Surface spills and improper disposal are highly feasible in some areas, especially given the vast amount of waste fluid to be disposed of. Health impacts can also affect animals and pets. Hazardous air pollution resulting from volatile compounds is another concern.

There is the potential for drinking water to be contaminated with toxic chemicals. Hundreds of chemicals are involved in fracking and some can cause cancer, with pregnant women and children particularly sensitive to health risks. Groundwater near drilling regions in Colorado had an increased concentration of hormone-disrupting chemicals, while higher levels of birth defects have been observed near drilling areas.

In some economies, gas can replace coal as a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon electricity system. However, in the UK this is unlikely.

Reaching the UK’s legally binding ‘net zero’ 2050 emissions target involves ‘virtually decarbonising’ electricity generation by 2030. It also sees limited role for natural gas as a source of heat, instead being replaced by electricity and other carbon-free alternatives.

In 2015 the Environmental Audit Committee concluded: ‘extensive production of unconventional gas through fracking is inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under the Climate Change Act’. [NB this refers to the previous 80% emissions reduction target]

Prof Paul Ekins University College London
Prof Peter Newell Sussex University
We write as environmental and social scientists in response to the extraordinary claims by the climate minister, Graham Stuart, that fracking and oil drilling are “good for the environment” and the economy (12 October). The reality is quite different.
  • 1. Mr Stuart’s claim about the supposed lower carbon intensity of UK oil and gas extraction pales into insignificance compared with the carbon implications of adding to overall extraction of fossil fuels, and flies in the face of the warning by the International Energy Agency that no new oil, gas or coal development can take place if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.
  • 2. New UK oil and gas will lock in dependency on infrastructure that will become increasingly useless as the UK moves towards its emission reduction target.
  • 3. The signal that such a move sends ahead of next month’s Cop27 summit is damaging to the UK’s credibility, as Lord Deben of the Climate Change Committee has made clear.
  • 4. From licensing to starting production, most new oil wells require 10 years, and UK gas prices are unaffected by UK production, so new drilling is irrelevant to the cost of living crisis.
  • 5. Regarding fracking, Stuart’s own government banned it because of the challenges of extracting safely, and shale gas’s overall carbon footprint was found to be comparable to gas extracted from conventional sources, according to a government report.

This is a distraction when wind and solar are more competitive. Investment in cheap renewable energies needs to be combined with reductions in energy demand through home insulation, heat pumps and support for public transport to ensure we do not have to resort to expanding supply in such a reckless and unsustainable way.