Seismic events cause the government to end support for fracking in the UK

Fracking for shale gas in the UK has come to a halt following the imposition of a moratorium by the government, until compelling new evidence is provided that it can be carried out safely.

Ministers took the decision on the basis of a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which found that it is not currently possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations. Exploratory work to determine whether shale gas could be a new domestic energy source for the UK has therefore been paused with immediate effect. 

The moratorium follows a series of recent seismic events connected to Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road fracking site in Lancashire, and disturbance caused to nearby residents. Operations at the site have been suspended since a magnitude 2.9 event was recorded on 26 August. The government had introduced a ‘traffic light’ system of regulating seismicity caused by shale gas exploration, allowing the OGA to swiftly put a halt to activity when required – including after several events this summer.

The government says that ministers have always been clear that the exploration of the UK’s shale gas reserves could only proceed if the science shows that it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby. For that reason, it introduced tight planning controls and set strict limits on seismicity. 

OGA Director of Regulation Tom Wheeler said: ‘Since the OGA suspended hydraulic fracturing at Preston New Road we have been considering whether the operator’s plans are still appropriate to manage the risk of induced seismicity… the OGA believes that further detailed geomechanical analysis would be needed before we could evaluate with confidence whether hydraulic fracturing could resume in the Fylde, or elsewhere, consistent with the government’s policy aims.’

The government also confirmed that it will not be taking forward proposed planning reforms for shale gas developments at this time. 

Other sources of natural gas will continue to contribute to the UK’s diverse energy mix, said the government. Business, Energy and Clean Growth Minister Kwasi Kwarteng seemed to suggest that fracking for shale gas has now ended, saying: ‘The Committee on Climate Change’s advice is clear that natural gas will continue to have a key role to play as we eliminate our contribution to climate change by 2050. However, following our action today, that gas will need to come from sources other than domestic fracking.’

Trade body UK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) nevertheless remains optimistic. Chief Executive Ken Cronin said: ‘We are fully committed to working closely with the OGA and other relevant regulators to demonstrate that we can operate safely and environmentally responsibly. Given the size of the prize at stake – the significantly lower carbon footprint of domestic gas compared to imports and the significant investment the industry and the government have already made – we believe this is the right approach.’

UKOOG points out that 50% of the UK’s gas supply is currently imported, and this figure is expected to increase if advantage is not taken of the UK’s indigenous shale gas resource. Meanwhile, the developer at Preston New Road, Cuadrilla Resources, says it will continue to provide further detailed data to address concerns so that the moratorium can be lifted and the Bowland gas resource further appraised and developed.

But an October report from the National Audit Office pointed to the considerable local public opposition to fracking and the slow progress being made to establish the UK shale gas resource. Against that background, others suggest that efforts to establish a new fossil fuel extraction industry is inappropriate as the UK heads towards a zero emissions future.

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