Last Wednesday, the term “whip” took on a new meaning as the famous gesticulating and yelling across the aisles of the British House of Commons escalated into Conservatives pushing their fellow party members out of the main room and toward the voting booths to keep them from abstaining during the government’s vote on fracking. This was a last-ditch effort to save the government of Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss, who already had two major Cabinet members resign, complaining of serious concerns about the government’s leadership. The government was looking weaker by the second. Although Truss’s team won the vote, she lost the war, as she resigned the next day.
The vote was brought forward by the opposition Labour Party, in an effort to permanently ban fracking. Labour’s motion failed by a vote of 329 to 230. But the chaos during the vote exposed the deep rifts within the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, between the right-wingers who led the United Kingdom out of the European Union and the moderates who favour more pro-environment policies. (Truss belongs to the former camp.) Despite the win, confidence in Truss’s leadership remained low and she resigned after just 44 days in office, the shortest tenure in U.K. history.
To understand why fracking — which is short for hydraulic fracturing and refers to the process of shooting liquid into rock below the Earth’s surface to release oil or gas — has become central to British politics, one must start at the beginning of the issue’s history.
Fracking caused small earthquakes in the U.K. around 2011, leading to an 18-month ban and a new system to regulate drilling and monitor seismic activity. In 2019, the oil and gas company Cuadrilla Resources triggered a 2.9-magnitude earthquake, which was believed to be the biggest fracking-related tremor ever recorded in Britain. In response, the national government issued a moratorium that promised not to start fracking again unless new evidence said it was safe to do so.
But this spring, the Russian invasion of Ukraine caused oil and gas prices to spike, especially in Europe. The government of then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned a review on fracking by the British Geological Survey. The study found no new evidence that it can be done more safely, in part because there has been no new fracking in the country, but also because there’s no evidence internationally that it can be done more safely than in the past.
On Oct. 18, the Labour Party, which has the second most seats in Parliament, brought forward a motion to ban fracking officially. Several senior Conservative members of Parliament, including the commissioner of an independent study of the government’s approach to meeting its net zero target, announced they would abstain rather than vote with Truss. In response, a few of Truss’s allies claimed that abstaining — in effect voting with Labour — would signify a no-confidence vote for Truss, turning those nonvotes into a major rebellion in the party and instilling even more doubt in a government that was already shaky.
“This is not a motion on fracking. This is a confidence motion in the government,” said the Conservative deputy chief whip, Craig Whittaker, in a message to MPs. His job was to convince all the Tories to vote in favour of the Conservative government, meaning against the motion.
As a result, the vote came to signify not just the country’s future in fracking, but also the Tories’ confidence in, and loyalty to, their own leadership. Fracking itself was less of an issue than the fact that several senior members of the Conservative Party were about to go against the prime minister.
In the end, 40 Conservatives abstained, which was in effect a vote against Truss, and the vote itself was a spectacle. “I saw a whole swathe of MPs effectively pushing one member straight through the door,” Labour MP Chris Bryant told the BBC,” adding that what he saw was “clear bullying.” Because the voting booths are outside the house chamber, members of government must leave the room in order to vote. Those being pushed were likely hoping to abstain.
The controversy shook the party to its core. Several MPs, who were now extremely worried that they no longer had party unity, called for Truss to step down the next day in an effort to restore some sense of order. The country’s third prime minister of the year, Rishi Sunak, was elected unopposed on Monday.
The U.K.’s deeply conflicted attitude toward fracking has its roots in the U.S.’s success with the process. Fracking created a boom in U.S. domestic oil and gas production in the mid-2000s, making up 43% of the oil production and 67% of natural gas production in the United States. It created around 9.8 million jobs over the course of the last decade and provided some assistance during the 2008 recession.
“One of the reasons [former Conservative Prime Minister David] Cameron’s government was so hopeful [about fracking] was because it looked at what was happening in the U.S.,” Michael Bradshaw, professor of global energy at Warwick Business School in Coventry, England, told Yahoo News. “They believed the hype that the industry was selling them.”
But the geological conditions in Britain are not as conducive to fracking as they are in the U.S. A 2013 study by Chatham House, an international affairs think tank, found 14 factors that could explain the American fracking boom, such as low clay content, which made it easier to fracture the rocks. Most of those factors do not apply in the U.K.
The intra-Tory divide between staunch conservatives who favour fracking and moderates who oppose it hinges on whether there could be a boom in energy from fracking like the one the U.S. experienced. But all the evidence points to no.
“Comparing the two is deeply problematic,” said Bradshaw, citing the different geologies, the decades the U.S. has had to build up its fracking industry, and laws that allowed gas producers more access to the pipelines, in addition to a much more extensive pipeline grid.
The simplicity and uniformity of the U.S.’s geology makes fracking easier and more efficient. “Economic and productivity success of shale gas in the U.S. is phenomenal,” said Jon Gluyas, executive director of the Durham Energy Institute. “Will it last? No. But you have a lot of shale to go.”
The U.K.’s geology is complex and made up of small basin areas. Each area is different, which means each drilling session requires a new plan and approach. “Because our geology is small and complex, each well would be different,” Gluyas said. “The U.S. can, in contrast, drill hundreds of thousands of identical wells.”
In addition to the fact that British geology makes fracking more challenging, it also means not nearly as much oil can be extracted. “The size of the prize, experts can’t even agree on that,” Bradshaw said.
Fracking re-emerged recently as an answer to the energy crisis, but experts — and even some fracking companies — have said that drilling is not going to solve the short-term crisis. “Whatever it extracts by fracking will have no impact on the current crisis partly because the lead times are so long that the new resources won’t be live for a while,” said Josh Burke, a senior policy fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The oil would also go into international markets rather than solely to domestic supply, which means it will reduce prices only by as much as it increases supply globally, which translates to a small impact on domestic prices.
Experts can’t quite figure out why the recent government made fracking such a big issue. “It’s honestly quite baffling,” Burke said. “It’s particularly hard to grapple with because it was put to bed three to four years ago and people are looking to move on, there are stringent climate targets which makes the idea of extracting more natural gas hard to grapple with, and it isn’t going to solve the energy crisis.”
The Truss government justified fracking by repeating its focus on growth and saying it wanted to continue drilling in order to collect data on the dangers. Truss also promised she would go through with fracking only if there is “local consent,” but failed to define what counts as consent.
“She had an intention of trying to get shale gas going, but everything she’s done has made it less likely, not more,” said Bradshaw.
While the fracking vote served as a proxy for loyalty in Truss’s government, it also exposed the rift within the Conservative Party and speaks to the role of fracking in the future of British politics. The conservative MPs who voted against it are from key battleground areas in the north of England. Those areas would be the most affected by fracking, showing that local consent is unlikely and that pushing forward could cause the Conservatives to lose those areas.
There is no general election scheduled for another two and a half years. In the meantime, Labour, which is polling a record 36 points ahead of the Conservative government, has promised it will ban fracking if it comes into in power, so companies may be reluctant to invest in fracking even if the moratorium were soon lifted.
Experts believe Sunak will not want to revive the contentious debate over fracking, and predict that the moratorium will not get lifted. “He’ll probably say his inbox is too full with other things,” Bradshaw said.