Has fracking finally come to an end?

After years of fervent activism in communities up and down the country, the government has finally announced a moratorium on the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas. But can we really celebrate the end of fracking?

An image of anti-fracking protestors in Lancashire
An image of anti-fracking protestors in Lancashire

Image: Tina Rothery

Imogen Benson

The UK Government has announced an immediate moratorium on fracking in England, after a report from the Oil and Gas Authority highlighted the precarious link between hydraulic fracturing and seismic events. 

Alongside the ban, the government announced that it will be shelving its plans for proposed planning reforms for shale gas developments, which were originally consulted on in 2018.

Commenting, Business and Energy Secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “Whilst acknowledging the huge potential of UK shale gas to provide a bridge to a zero carbon future, I’ve also always been clear that shale gas exploration must be carried out safely. In the UK, we have been led by the best available scientific evidence, and closely regulated by the Oil and Gas Authority, one of the best regulators in the world.

“After reviewing the OGA’s report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community.

“For this reason, I have concluded that we should put a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect.”

The moratorium comes as welcome news for the thousands of anti-fracking protestors who have spent years raising concerns over the environmental impacts of shale gas extraction. Activists in Lancashire recently marked 1,000 days of protest against Cuadrilla’s drilling operations at Preston New Road, which were suspended in August following an earthquake of 2.9 magnitude. 

As well as its environmental consequences, fracking has also placed a significant financial burden on the UK public, with a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) revealing that fracking has cost the taxpayer more than £32 million since 2011, despite making much slower progress than was initially anticipated. 

The same report stressed the high level of public antagonism towards the fracking industry, revealing that opposition to shale gas development has increased from 21 per cent to 40 per cent between 2013 and 2019.

A victory for people power

Green MP Caroline Lucas has hailed the announcement as a triumph of grassroots activism. She said: “Better late than never. Greens have been saying for years that fracking isn’t safe and would wreck our last chance to address the climate emergency.

“Finally the government has been forced to listen. Don’t let anyone tell you that campaigning doesn’t change anything. This is a major victory for people power across the country, from Balcombe in Sussex to Preston New Road in Lancashire. Local communities didn’t want fracking in their neighbourhood, they knew it wasn’t safe and the Oil and Gas Authority confirmed that they were right.

“The UK’s future is fossil fuel free. We’ve taken the first step with the ban on fracking, but we can’t stop until all fossil fuels are left in the ground where they belong.”

Gina Dowding, Green MEP for the North West of England, added: “We are delighted that the government has finally accepted the position that the Green Party and anti-fracking protestors have had from the outset.

“Principally, there is no level of regulation that is capable of assuring the safety of this industry. More critically, there is no place for a new fossil fuel in a climate emergency, when all the evidence points to the need to move swiftly to a zero-carbon energy supply.

“Local people will be hugely relieved following years of havoc this industry has wreaked upon their communities: and more than a few people will rest easier at night knowing that the risk of seismic tremors has gone.

“This decision will give cheer to young people, climate strikers and those who understand the need to move to clean, green and cheap renewables, and I think this will be an occasion of real celebration for the hundreds of thousands of people have been involved in the anti-fracking campaign, who have helped to highlight the costs and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.”

But is fracking really over?

Although the moratorium is a step in the right direction, the government’s latest announcement is far from a complete ban on shale gas extraction. Jeremy Corbyn has dubbed the move “an election stunt”, accusing the government of greenwashing in an attempt to win votes ahead of the December general election

Concerns have also been raised over the longevity of the ban, with the government stating that fracking will only be suspended until ‘compelling new evidence is provided’. Moreover, a loophole in the moratorium prevents this from being a blanket ban across all fracking sites, as the government has retained the scope to assess future planning applications on their individual merits. 

The moratorium does not stretch to other methods of shale gas extraction, which are arguably just as hazardous as hydraulic fracturing  – the process of acidisation, which involves injecting acid solutions into the rock to stimulate oil and gas, has been linked to earthquakes in the Weald Basin in Surrey. 

Campaigners will also be concerned at the government’s insistence that natural gas has a “key role” to play in reaching its 2050 net-zero goal, as espoused by Business, Energy and Clean Growth Minister Kwasi Kwarteng.

Calling for more extensive legislation, Dowding said: “It was clear from the start that there is no place for fracking in a 21st-century energy plan. All that remains now is for the moratorium to become a complete ban.

“However, I’m surprised to see Andrea Leadsom still talking about the need for gas in a zero-carbon economy in 2050 – she mentions gas as a source of hydrogen. She is clearly behind the science again; it is clear that green hydrogen is already being produced from electrolysis of water using renewable energy but that’s a debate for another day.”