A Renewed Fracking Threat: What You Can Do!
The UK government’s announcement that it is planning to end the “pause” in fracking exploration was long expected, but perhaps what was not was the lack of justification or even any details accompanying it. The usual claims of vast quantities of cheap gas, ready to go at a moments notice have been trotted out, but the reality is that the fracking industry is not even back to the position it was in before Cuadrilla’s failed fracking tests in 2018/2019. A lot of companies have folded or got out of fracking, planning permissions have expired, and reserves of investment cash have been depleted. That said, the fossil fuel industry is awash with cash at the moment, some of which is bound to trickle down to the UK’s zombie fracking industry, and we should remember that the massive failure of the industry in the US, losing the best part of a trillion dollars of investor’s cash in little more than a decade did not put a stake through the heart of the industry there. We live in times when failure is often rewarded. A renewed fracking threat is growing, and while the growth of that threat is likely to be slower than some would have us believe, a new, log term resistance will be needed if it is to be stopped again. Now would be a very good time look to the strength, organisation and resilience of you community in the face of this threat, and the many others we can expect in the coming years.
A Renewed Fracking Threat
Despite a long hiatus, the threat of fracking in the UK now seems higher than at any point since testing at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire was shutdown following the series of earthquakes it produced. With Cuadrilla 3 for 3, in causing earthquake swarms as a result hydraulic fracturing tests at Preese Hall in 2011, Preston New Road (well no. 1) in 2018 and Preston New Road (well no. 2) in 2019, and public support for fracking in the toilet, there was much optimism that this form of extreme energy extraction had been shown the door, in the UK at least. Sadly this has led to a significant demobilisation of fracking resistance and the intervening years have been lean ones not just for the fracking industry but for opposition to it as well.
However, as was pointed out at the time, this was not so much an active and decisive defeat as a number of stiff headwinds for the fracking industry and its enablers (principally the government) which made it difficult to push forward at that time. Since 2019 a lot has changed, oil and gas prices (and therefore both the potential investment cash and the perceived rewards of gambling some if it on fracking) have risen significantly. The freshness of the outrage at Cuadrilla’s latest failures in Lancashire has also been dimmed by the intervening years. Most importantly the current state of affairs, which seems reminiscent of the Great Depression economically, and the lead up to World War I geo-politically, is perfectly attuned to encourage reaching for “magic” solutions to problems, real or imagined.
In recent months the government, and particularly sections press and “think” tanks (e.g. Tufton Street) which feed them, have been floating the idea of restarting fracking tests, and the government has commissioned the British Geological Survey to produce a report which would support this. The report’s focus was predictably narrow, considering only induced earthquakes and not the dozens of other significant impacts of fracking. Even so the science around fracking induced earthquakes has only got more damming in recent years, the report would have needed to be creative to say the least. It was submitted in July (but not made public) but due to the then zombie state of the UK government it has yet to be acted upon. This is now changing, though the imperative to justify fracking seems to have vanished, and the fracking industry seems set to once again be unleashed upon the UK.
How we got here
The last decade and a half has seen an explosion in oil and gas drilling across the global as conventional, easy to extract, hydrocarbons have become harder to find and the system has been forced to resort to new more aggressive extraction techniques. While oil prices are not currently quite at their 2008 peak, and new drilling has being slow to get going despite prices rising prices, the signs are there, and this hasn’t stopped preparations for continued expansion once the price is right. The industry is busy gathering geological data with the intention of securing further investment when oil prices inevitably spike.
The first major push by the fracking industry in this country began in 2007/2008, when a number of companies, including the newly formed Cuadrilla Resources, acquired licences in the 13th onshore round with an eye to exploiting unconventional hydrocarbons. Soon afterwards, oil prices fell in the wake of the credit crunch but the companies coasted on, burning through previous investment cash. Cuadrilla’s infamous earthquakes at Preese Hall in Lancashire in 2011 made it impossible to sneak by drilling wells and gathering data under the radar. Resistance began to grow, with the first community groups formed and two occupations of Cuadrilla’s drilling rig in the same year.
Renewed high oil prices between 2012 and 2014 fuelled new interest in fracking, with significant investments into Cuadrilla and IGas from major players such as Centrica, Total and GDF Suez during this period. But renewed drilling by Cuadrilla at Balcombe in Sussex and later IGas at Barton Moss near Manchester was met with fierce resistance. This period also saw the entry of chemical giant Ineos into the fracking business, as it began buying up licence areas. A new 14th onshore licencing round in 2014/2015 saw whole new swathes of the country licensed, with Ineos alone acquiring over a 1 million acres.
High oil prices inevitably lead to a price crash as demand is strangled, and this happened in 2014. This dried up continuing investment, and fracking companies are running (for the most part) on investment acquired during the years of high oil prices, with the possible exception of Ineos. The last few years, particularly following Cuadrilla’s failures in Lancashire, have seen some smaller companies give up, but despite this the core of the UK fracking industry remains on life support, and could easily be revived with an
infusion of new investment cash.
With around 10 million of acres of the UK under licence, communities are under threat from the industry like never before. Full-scale fracking in these areas would mean the drilling of many thousands of wells, at densities of eight wells per square mile or more, plus other fracking infrastructure like pipelines, compressor stations, processing plants and waste disposal facilities carving up the countryside. This would result in a host of severe impacts including water contamination, air pollution, massive amounts of toxic/radioactive waste and carnage on rural roads from the massive amounts of truck traffic.
What is being targeted
Unconventional oil and gas extraction, colloquially referred to as fracking, covers a broad range of more extreme hydrocarbon extraction methods targeting relatively impermeable rock formations. This includes shale gas, tight/shale oil, tight gas, coalbed methane (CBM) and underground coal gasification (UCG). While these methods differ greatly in technical details, they are all driven by similar pressures and have similarly intense impacts. Over the last decade or so we have seen significant attempts to push forward all these methods, but in the face of growing resistance and unstable prices the more speculative or less profitable methods, UCG and CBM, have been de-prioritised.
The main geological formations currently being targeted include the Bowland Shale which extends over large parts of Central England, from Lancashire and North Yorkshire down to Cheshire and the East Midlands. In the case of Third Energy in North Yorkshire, the company is targeting tight gas formations embedded within the Bowland Shale. However, this is just an example of targeting slightly less difficult to extract resources first, before moving on to the shale itself later. Similarly, in the South East of England the shallow Kimmeridge Clay and deeper Lias shale formations are being targeted for tight/shale oil. Initially limestone (micrite) layers within the Kimmeridge Clay are being targeted for tight oil but extraction from the shale itself may be a longer term threat.
Every area which has been licensed is under some sort of threat and many unlicensed areas could be licensed in the future, but fracking spreads its tentacles well beyond the drilling sites, with waste disposal, sand mining, pipelines and support sites. That said the threat is more immediate in some areas than others. Even people not living in these areas should be extremely concerned, as any new fracking foothold provides a spring board from which it could spread to other areas. These are some of the most important current front lines in the fight against fracking:
Lancashire – Cuadrilla Resources (Shale Gas) Fracking company Cuadrilla site at Preston New Road still exists and the wells have not been plugged. The company has been actively campaigning for fracking to continue and would almost certainly start planning for new tests as soon as it got the go ahead.
Sussex/Surrey – UKOG and others (Tight/Shale Oil) The threat of tight (shale) oil extraction in the Weald (between the South and North Downs) in Sussex and Surrey is a slow moving but growing, with fracking company UK Oil & Gas Investments (UKOG) acting as its main cheerleader. In addition to an existing site at Horse Hill, and new drilling site has been approved at Dunsfold.
North Yorkshire/East Midlands/Cheshire – Ineos etc. (Tight/Shale Gas) A whole swath of the north of England, mainly that above the Bowland Shale formation is under licence. Apart from Cuadrilla, Ineos is by far the largest company involved in UK fracking, and has also been lobbying hard for a resumption of fracking.
It’s not just geological information that the fracking industry is interested in, “social data” on the economic risks associated with community resistance is gathered and shared just as keenly. This is where the anti-fracking movement comes in. The next fracking fight is now moving into a new phase, where the easier get out clause of embarrassing the government into stopping fracking seems an ever more vain hope. If fracking tests resume, causing physical delays and ramping up costs will hold the key to deterring future investment in the industry.
The previous fracking push in this country could best be described as a slow motion invasion, being fought on numerous fronts, most actively by threatened local communities, in a manner reminiscent of guerrilla warfare. Not that you would find many Kalashnikov toting partisans in the home counties, or even Lancashire, but strategically, the modus operandi has many parallels. Fighting on numerous small fronts, the previously active 300+ local anti-fracking groups delayed and ramped up the costs of fracking projects, wearing down the industry and deterring the investment on which it relies.
Previous successes are no reason to be complacent, the industry seems set to be allowed another roll of the dice, this time in political conditions much more suited to it, and the coming years could see the the most significant fracking assault to date. Without the rekindling of dynamic and community-based anti-fracking movement which can fight the industry to a standstill wherever it wants to drill, the future is bleak. But there are causes for hope – our communities have little choice but to stand and fight. In the end this is a fight to the death, either the fracking companies get to coat the country in tens of thousands of wells or we drive them in to bankruptcy. There are no other options.