Fracking - Where are we now ?
By Steve Mason in GLD Challenge magazine 2019-20
Since the government announced the moratorium on fracking, campaigners and activists have been keeping a keen eye on the statements by the government and have continued to raise awareness of the potential loopholes that can be exploited [i].
Earlier this year, in answers to questions in parliament, the minister responsible for fracking finally gave some clarity into what is actually covered by the fracking moratorium. He stated that it applied only to operations as covered by the 2015 Infrastructure Act(IA2015).[ii]
Under the Act, fracking is defined by how much fluid is used to fracture the rock, be it "more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at each stage or expected stage" or "more than 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in total".
Therefore, if the moratorium is only intended to cover activities above these thresholds then effectively, we may still see fracking taking place at most sites. This definition is very narrow and could allow for 'flouting of the rules' by operators simply by reducing the amount of fluid used at high pressure to free up locked in oil and gas or resorting to other extreme extraction techniques.
The minister went on to confirm the limitations of the moratorium by saying, "Activities outside this definition are not included in the moratorium." The controversy of the definition of fracking is best explained by The House of Commons Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee - Planning guidance on fracking Eighth Report of Session 2017-19[iii]
'We therefore believe that the Infrastructure Act 2015 definition is unsuitable in the planning context and recommend that it should not be liquid or volume-based. While we welcome the Government's intention to unify the definitions of fracking used in the Infrastructure Act 2015 and the National Planning Practice Guidance due to the resultant lack of clarity and uncertainty in using multiple definitions, we are highly concerned at the Government's suggestion that the Infrastructure Act definition will replace the current definition in a revised National Planning Practice Guidance.
We call on the Government to amend the Infrastructure Act definition to ensure public confidence that every development which artificially fractures rock is subject to the appropriate permitting and regulatory regime.'
The moratorium also does not cover exploratory drilling such as at the sites at Woodsetts and Harthill in the midlands, nor does it extend to extraction by other means at sites such as Wressle in Lincolnshire or Brockham in Surrey, where they propose Acid Stimulation. The same amount of infrastructure, depth of well, etc. is required but a different substance is used to squeeze and open up fractures with potentially the same environmental and seismicity issues.[iv] Yet, because this is not mentioned in the IA2015, production can continue.
For clarity and peace of mind for residents, the moratorium should be extended to close any potential volumetric loopholes and other extreme stimulation techniques, such as acid fracking.[v]
It's unlikely that any operator will then spend the amount of money required for the exploratory phase with no return without every likelihood of going on to produce.
The new focus on climate change has given the fossil fuel companies a headache and the latest 'hard sell' by the industry is in response to the growing awareness of the climate emergency. It is fast becoming obvious that we, as a society, must keep fossil fuels in the ground. Their remedy to this headache is to 'greenwash' fossil fuels, with a narrative that fossil fuels are needed to tackle climate change and to help the UK reach net zero, I kid you not!
In the current climate emergency, fracked gas, where ever it is extracted from, has no place as a bridging fuel to a low carbon economy or as a feedstock for making hydrogen. Fracking has considerable implications across the world especially as new research points to methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are "vastly underestimated"[vi] and are exacerbating global warming[vii].
Over the past few years, those opposed to the fracking companies have continually rebuffed industry claims and projections in every arena possible, having systematically taken apart successive Conservative Government reasoning piece by piece. We must continue challenging this reasoning at every level of policy making. Legal challenges have already had significant impact in the campaign and the recent decision on the Heathrow 3rd runway may well mean climate change will be a consideration for future Oil and Gas developments.
In another case last year, High Court judge Mr Justice Dove, issued a judgment[viii] which declared that a paragraph added by the energy minister to the National Planning Policy Framework relating to onshore oil and gas development, including fracking, was in fact, UNLAWFUL.
Local authorities and policy makers now do NOT have to specifically 'recognise the benefits of on-shore oil and gas development, including unconventional hydrocarbons for the security of energy supplies and to support the transition to a low-carbon economy.' They do not have to facilitate the exploration and extraction of onshore hydrocarbons as directed before and any and all public bodies should listen to and consider all the evidence before creating policy and making plans.
With public support for fracking at an all-time low,[ix] the onshore oil and gas industry is not in any position to significantly contribute to the UK's energy mix in either the near or medium term, simply because there is significant industry to speak of. Its development, irrespective of how optimistic the industry projections are, just isn't viable without intense lobbying, favourable policy, regulation changes, the lifting of a moratorium and a trade-off of community wellbeing for industrialisation to produce more fossil fuels that are best kept in the ground.
To many, it may seem to many that fracking has simply gone away, beaten back never to return, but we should not be complacent and we must remain vigilant. It is now crystal clear, and generally accepted, that developing any form of extreme oil and gas extraction in the UK will result in unacceptable negative impacts on the environment, local communities and democracy, energy security, health and existing economies, especially at a time when the government should instead be urgently developing policy and infrastructure to provide a clean, low carbon vision for Britain.
If we are to be serious about meeting our climate change commitments then it is imperative that we use every method at our disposal to permanently stop ALL forms of extreme extraction of fossil fuels which still represents a clear and present environmental danger going into the future. Furthermore, I would personally go further and halt the development of all new fossil fuel infrastructure, period.
is Vice Chair of the Green Lib Dems, Co-founder of Frack Free United and a Director of Environmental Smart C.I.C.