HomeNewsLiz Truss, we support fracking too – that’s why we know it can’t work for Britain | Chris Cornelius and Mark Linder
Liz Truss, we support fracking too – that’s why we know it can’t work for Britain | Chris Cornelius and Mark Linder
September 22, 2022
In one of her first acts as prime minister, Liz Truss pledged to lift the ban on fracking in England, with the aim of opening up access to Britain’s copious onshore natural gas resources.
You would imagine that we, as the founder and former public affairs director of Cuadrilla Resources, an oil and gas exploration company, would welcome this news. Although we are no longer involved with Cuadrilla, we believe this news is positive. But it is misleading to imply that the announcement will lead to meaningful supply of new gas in the UK in the foreseeable future. And we believe there are other more practicable steps that could be taken to produce significant energy in a timely manner. Here’s why.
Fracking – more technically known as hydraulic fracturing – is necessary to liberate methane molecules from hard shales and many other rock types. This takes place 2-4km below the surface, about the distance between Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, under a number of impermeable layers of rock. The techniques have been made needlessly controversial in the UK due to misrepresented concerns about isolated incidents ofgroundwater contamination and microseismicity, the former of which only take place when mistakes are made during well management. Fracking has been regarded as safe practice by knowledgable regulators in countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Argentina and others – countries where manythousands of wells are fracked on an annual basis.
We would not be able to import liquid natural gas (LNG) from the US and Canada if it were not produced by fracking in those countries.
Disagreements about safety are not the real challenge, however. In our view, there are two key additional barriers: technical and economic feasibility, and sociopolitical alignment around scale.
First, just because a resource exists does not mean it’s feasible or economic to extract it. In Lancashire, we learned in 2011that the shale formations are extremely gassy. They are also heavily faulted and compartmentalised, unlike the generally continuous gas-bearing formations underlying large parts of Pennsylvania, Texas and Alberta. Learning how to recover this gas will take time – and indeed may create low-level, short-lived ground tremors, an issue that in Britain has been blown dramatically out of proportion. The construction and rail industries would not be able to exist under the standards that have been applied to onshore gas recovery.
On top of this, the UK is a very expensive place to operate. Governments have singled out the energy sector for regulations that impede operations that are standard in agriculture and other industries. The upshot is that an operation that in the US, Canada and even Argentina is a rapid piece of keyhole surgery is in the UK a ponderous, slow-moving and costly operation.
Democratic process has created these regulations, and we are not criticising them. But from an investment point of view, Britain’s cost envelope is itself a significant barrier to raising the many tens of billions of pounds required to embark on a meaningful UK shale gas programme.
Today’s high gas and oil prices are not by themselves sufficient incentive for investors. Existing investments in LNG infrastructure – commissioned before the war began – mean that Europe will have plentiful gas availability (much from “fracked” wells in other countries) with a return to pricing normality in two to three years.
The second issue is the enormous scale of operations that would be required to replace even 10% of UK natural gas: thousands of wells would need to be completed over the next 30 to 50 years, with the drilling and fracking of hundreds of wells a year. This would mean dozens of rigs and fracking crews in continuous mobilisation across the country. At Cuadrilla, we learned first-hand how much this kind of industrial activity is resented in Britain. Many of these crews would be from America. Britain does not manufacture much of the relevant equipment – most of that would be European and North American.
Even if the UK were to generate significant gas, we are not likely to see lower gas prices – any more than living next to a farm would mean paying less for milk. We are governed by regional market pricing. An increment of 10% from one country – which would be a stretch – is not enough to change regional pricing.
In summary, the sociopolitical and economic barriers to fracking are high. This is why we, as veterans of the fracking protests, are sceptical about the prospects for shale gas at scale in the UK.
In addition to the gesture at shale gas, we believe thattwo other readily available sources of net zero energy ought to be pursued.
One is the vast amount of warm, non-potable brine underneath large parts of the country – an energy source we have been evaluating for potential future ventures. From Northern Ireland to the Wessex basin to the east Midlands, these saline brines sit in permeable sandstone formations at temperatures of 60-80C. “Doublet” wells would allow temporary extraction of this warm water to heat greenhouses or other industry, which would then be returned back to the formation.
This is a resource that is easily tapped. All that is needed is the political courage to seed exploration and alter water extraction and planning regulations to also encompass heat. Britain, now a significant importer of perishable vegetables, could become a significant exporter, while drastically reducing the carbon footprint of the country’s horticultural sector. (One of us is involved in a company seeking a licence to produce such energy.)
And then there is Britain’s tidal range, second highest in the world. The moon pulls billions of tonnes of water up and into our western estuaries, which could then be harnessed for energy generation. Britain could have a meaningful tidal lagoon industry if we wanted to. We just need the political will to not weaken developers and exhaust their resources over sensationalised but manageable issues like estuary fish stocks, and the higher cost of an initial pathfinder lagoon.
Truss is right to pursue new energy sources, but misplaces the emphasis. It’s sociopolitical will that is missing. Sociopolitical will is missing, no matter the machiavellian rants of both the left and right, and the prime minister’s decrees. Britain will need to rely on the import of natural gas for many decades – to suggest otherwise is to mislead the population.
We are not here to disparage fracking and the incredibly important role this technology plays and will continue to play in the global energy transition. But in the case of the UK, there are other low-carbon energy opportunities such as tidal and shallow geothermal heat that are perpetually drowned out by socio-political “fracking soundbites”. Such technologies will not replace the need for imported gas, but could meaningfully help the UK chip away at its continued reliance on hydrocarbons.
British society needs to find the willpower and patience to activate any of these plentiful and dependable energy sources.
Dr Chris Cornelius, an exploration geologist, was the founder of Cuadrilla Resources and Mark Linder was the first public affairs director. Neither has been involved with Cuadrilla for many years.