The ban on shale gas fracking in England has been restored by new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in his first PMQs.
His predecessor Liz Truss divided Tory MPs by lifting the ban on the controversial process where there was local consent.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the new prime minister said he stands “by the manifesto” on fracking. Asked if that meant the revival of fracking was now “in the bin”, the prime minister’s official spokesman said: “Yes.”
The Conservative 2019 manifesto placed a moratorium on fracking in England following opposition from environmentalists and local communities.
Sunak’s decision was welcomed by environmental groups who described it as a “victory for common sense”, but supporters of fracking said it would make the UK more dependent on gas imports.
Truss announced her decision to lift the ban on fracking, which involves drilling into the earth to recover gas from shale rock, in September. With energy bills rising, she argued fracking could boost the UK’s gas supplies.
But the move provoked a backlash from many Conservative MPs because of concerns about earth tremors linked to fracking.
Last week Labour set out to introduce a draft law to ban fracking, and Tory MPs were warned prior to the vote that a Labour vote in the Commons in support of banning fracking would be treated as a “confidence motion” in Liz Truss.
The Government won the vote with 326 votes, with 230 MPs voting for the ban.
Shortly after the vote, there were reports that the chief whip, Wendy Morton, and her deputy, Craig Whittaker, had lost their jobs. Downing Street later confirmed that the pair “remain in post”.
Despite pressure from the government, 40 Tory MPs failed to support the vote, including Chris Skidmore, Tracey Crouch, William Wragg, and Angela Richardson.
What was the fracking policy under Liz Truss?
Truss’s government announced fracking was to be resumed after the practice was stopped in November 2019 following concerted opposition from environmental groups.
In addition, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business and energy secretary, said the limits on seismic activity relating to shale-gas exploration and extraction were too low and would be reviewed.
At present, there are three test wells in the UK; however, 151 licences for petroleum development and exploration have been granted, many of which could encroach on national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Chris Cornelius, the geologist who founded shale-gas firm Cuadrilla Resources, which has drilled in England, told the Guardian that he did not think the UK was geologically suited to fracking. He said the country has “heavily faulted and compartmentalised” deposits of shale gas, making extraction difficult. Earlier this year, Cuadrilla said it was abandoning its wells.
Nonetheless, Truss said in an interview during her campaign to become prime minister: “I support exploring fracking in parts of the United Kingdom where that can be done.”
What is fracking?
Fracking refers to the practice of drilling into the ground and directing a high-pressure mix of water, sand, and chemicals at a rock layer to release the gas inside. The fracking wells can be drilled vertically or horizontally.
The term fracking describes how rock is fractured apart by the high-pressure mixture, releasing the shale gas within.
At the moment, the UK can only meet 48 per cent of its gas demand from domestic supplies, with importing gas made harder due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict affecting gas supply into Europe.
Cuadrilla has claimed that “just 10 per cent” of the gas from shale deposits in Lancashire and surrounding areas “could supply 50 years’ worth of current UK gas demand”, the BBC has reported.
However, energy experts argued that this is not the case, as the amount of shale gas deposits is not representative of what could be produced for commercial use.
In addition, it would take several years for the shale wells to be brought back to commercial-production standard, not offering the instant supplies required to assist in the current energy crisis.
Why is fracking bad for the environment?
The injection of fluid at high pressure into the rock required to release shale gas has been known to cause earth tremors.
These small movements in the Earth’s surface are rarely felt by people, but more than 120 tremors were recorded during drilling at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site.
Despite these seismic events being considered minor, they are still a concern to residents and scientists. What’s more, the impact on the English countryside has been described as “enormous” by Greenpeace.
“Thousands of wells would be needed to produce just half of the UK’s gas demand,” said the environmental campaign organisation. “This industrial operation would also require huge numbers of trucks delivering chemicals and taking away contaminated wastewater.”
Greenpeace also warns that fracking affects the air and water quality of the surrounding area due to a number of factors, including engine exhaust from accidental water spills, increased truck traffic, emissions from diesel-powered pumps, gas that is burned or vented for operational reasons, and unintentional emissions of pollutants from faulty equipment.
Residents in areas where fracking could be undertaken have been vocal about not wanting it.
The noise of drilling lowers the property value of surrounding farms and homes, affecting the economy of the entire region.
Fracking also requires enormous amounts of water, the transportation of which results in a very high carbon footprint.
Environmental campaigners further argue that fracking is distracting decision-makers from investing in renewable sources of energy.
Relying on shale-gas deposits encourages a dependency on fossil fuels, which campaigners argue is merely delaying the energy crisis.
Here are all the locations where fracking could take place in the UK
The British Geological Survey (BGS) advises that there are four different areas in the UK where fracking could be possible due to shale-gas reserves. These are:
Carboniferous Bowland–Hodder area in Lancashire and the Midlands
Carboniferous Midland Valley in Scotland
Jurassic Weald basin in south England
Wessex area in south England
This was concluded between 2013 and 2016, when the BGS undertook research into potential fracking areas, providing the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy with estimates of potential shale-gas reserves. Wales has also been identified as having some potential areas for exploration; this includes the Bowland Shale Formation in north Wales and carboniferous shales in south Wales.