The UK government’s temporary fracking moratorium should turn into a permanent ban. Allowing shale gas extraction makes sense only when a country is still phasing out coal, and then only under certain conditions. But the UK is almost finished with coal, and fracking can only postpone its transition to clean energy.
The Conservative government has banned the drilling of new wells that use hydraulic fracturing — a technology that involves pumping liquids, chemicals and sand into bedrock formations to crack them and free up natural gas or oil. This follows a report commissioned by the UK Oil and Gas Authority that has linked earth tremors to fracking activity by Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., one of the companies developing shale gas in Britain. The risk of earthquakes arises when fracking is used close to geological faults, and these are hard to detect beforehand with current technology.
The UK government’s move is a pre-election turnabout: The Conservatives have always backed fracking, but it is unpopular with locals pretty much everywhere it’s used, including in the US, the technology’s greatest proponent and beneficiary. In the UK, 40% of the population — the highest share since 2013 — say they’re opposed to fracking, while just 12% support it. But public attitudes shouldn’t be the only reason to impose a fracking ban.
When it comes to carbon emissions, natural gas is certainly preferable to coal. But the UK has almost eliminated coal-fired power plants. According to the UK Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, coal’s share in the country’s electricity-generation mix reached just 0.5% in the second quarter of 2019.
The case made for shale in the UK and elsewhere has less to do with moving to clean energy than with importing less natural gas. As conventional gas production on the UK continental shelf has declined, imports have been increasing.
The idea is that by developing its own shale gas, the UK could increase its energy security and drive down energy prices. But thanks to the shale boom in the US and the recent growth in global liquefied-natural-gas exports, it’s unlikely the UK will ever experience a gas shortage — and today’s prices are the lowest in almost a decade.
In immediate future, shale can boost employment — but if a country is serious about its climate goals, it’s a bad idea to let an entire new industry develop and then have to shut it down and incur costs of compensating its employees for the loss of jobs. This process is already costing billions in the German coal industry. Imports, meanwhile, can be phased out at little political cost.
In US power generation, increased consumption of natural gas since 2009 is almost equal to the decrease in use of coal. A ban on fracking, supported in the US would require that the country quickly develop a renewables industry to cover that deficit — a costly project to say the least.
The UK should ban fracking permanently — and not just because of the tremors. In that sense, the Liberal Democrats and Labour, who support a full ban, are on firmer ground before the December parliamentary election than the Conservatives.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru