The writing is on the wall

As the dust starts to settle on the announcement of the government’s decision to implement a moratorium on new fracking development we take a look at what it means and how it came about.

First of all let’s be clear about one thing. Fracking in England has not been banned. Instead the government announced

On the basis of the disturbance caused to residents living near Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire and this latest scientific analysis, the government has announced a moratorium on fracking until compelling new evidence is provided.

A moratorium means “a temporary prohibition of an activity“. Significantly the government has not placed any time limit on their moratorium, stating instead that they will not allow further fracking “until the science can make clear what the seismic activity is likely to be with a much greater degree of certainty

Like me you can probably spot the wiggle room being created there.

It would also appear that the moratorium has been implemented only for “fracking” and not the associated activities of drilling and flaring, and other exploratory activities.

In this context it is interesting that under the government’s own definition of fracking (or “associated hydraulic fracturing” as it is called in the 2015 Infrastructure Act) …

…it could be argued that neither well at Preston New Road has actually been fracked as no stage used or was expected to use “more than 1,000 cubic metres of fluid at each stage, or expected stage” and the totals injected were less that 10,000 cubic metres in both cases (3602 M3 for PNR1 and 2485 m3 for PNR2).

Presumably if companies wished to try to get round this moratorium by stimulating with less than 10,000 m3 of fluid per well this route might still remain open to them, although it is hard to see how this would be economically viable or how they would get planning permission in the current climate.

In their Press Release the BEIS state that

The Traffic Light System was introduced in 2012 as an evidence-based method of regulating seismicity caused by shale gas exploration. It has operated at Preston New Road, allowing the OGA to swiftly put a halt to activity when required – including after several significant events this summer.

This is quite a strange claim as the Traffic Light System manifestly failed to stop the seismic activity at Preston New Road this summer. The 2.9Ml quake that put an end to the process occurred at 8:30 am on 26th August, a full three days after they last fracked. The BEIS are either spectacularly badly informed, stupendously self-satisfied or are misleading the public in an egregious way here.

What is even more strange is that the report from the Oil and Gas authority is based only on analysis of the seismic events provoked by the fracking of the first well. If that moved them to recommend a ban based on the unpredictability of the seismic activity last year, then analysis of the events this summer can only strengthen the scientific case being made agsint fracking.

Listening to Ms Leadsom, who, as usual, appears to be totally out her depth, it seems she hankers after the opportunity for science to bend itself to her agenda. The Independent reports that

She said it was clear the government “must impose this moratorium until the science changes”, but added shale gas is something the UK “will need for the next several decades”.
When pressed on why a permanent ban is not being implemented by No 10, she replied: “Because this is a huge opportunity for the United Kingdom”.

Readers will take some comfort here from the fact that as the great Ken Wilkinson ponderously pointed out at the Harrogate debateThe good thing about science is that it’s true, whether or not you believe in it

We think Ms Leadsom will have to wait some time for the science to change, or for a magical report to appear stating that the industry has discovered a way to accurately predict earthquakes. Remember this is an industry which mislaid the Millstone Grit at PNR and which failed to locate the entire Bowland Shale at Tinker Lane. The chances of these companies accurately locating fault lines and predicting what fracking into them will do look vanishingly small.

So why did the government blink here? Well rather obviously there is an election looming and the incumbent Tory MPs like Mark Menzies might have been vulnerable even with their large majorities. This moratorium tries to neutralise fracking as an electoral issue, but in fact it falls between two stools. It is not a ban, so the Fylde MP’s ineffectual response to the issue will still loom large in people’s minds. It may however mean that Lee Rowley, who took a safe Labour seat due to his opposition to fracking, now loses it again as his stance will no longer draw so many votes. He is sitting on a slim (5%) majority which must be very vulnerable in such a previously staunch Labour constituency.

Anyway, regardless of the motivation, we now have temporary ban on new fracking activity which will stop the industry in its tracks. The reaction of the Australian stock market to the news when trading opened this evening will be the first real indicator of what this means to the investors. (AJ Lucas which trades on ASX is Cuadrilla’s parent company). Trading in Igas shares will also give an indication tomorrow.

So do we have cause to celebrate? Undoubtedly yes. I don’t believe for one second that even a Boris Johnson led Conservative government would dare reverse this moratorium without being able to claim to have scientific evidence that fracking can proceed without causing significant earthquakes.

Given the 100% failure rate that Cuadrilla have demonstrated here on the Fylde, that evidence will simply not be forthcoming. Anyway, it is not sufficient for them to be able to predict the quakes. They need to be able to mitigate (or avoid) them. They have show many times now that with current techniques this is impossible.

It is not impossible that at some indeterminate point in the future they will find a way to unlock shale gas that does not involve fracking and earthquakes, but as we move closer and closer to decarbonising our economy that window of opportunity for the industry is getting ever smaller.

In any case as Saturday’s Financial Times made clear

Energy prices for oil, gas, wind and solar have all fallen over the past five years. If the UK fracking industry had not been halted by concerns over earthquakes, the economics of trying to produce small amounts of gas in the face of strong local opposition would have forced it out of business eventually.

Today’s Observer was even more scathing

Ministers have been condemned for wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in a failed attempt to introduce fracking to the UK. The bid also cost the nation a decade of effort that should have been expended on other, more environmentally friendly energy projects, scientists and activists claimed yesterday.

The results of Wave 31 of the BEIS quarterly tracker, due out on Thursday, are unlikely to provide any succour to this beleaguered industry either.

📷 Drill or Drop

The writing is on the wall now for this industry in the UK and I don’t believe that the government can find a way to wipe it out.

Whatever shape of government we end up with in December now needs to concentrate on viable and sustainable ways to create the energy we all need to live in 21st century society, and to develop techniques like Carbon Capture and Storage.

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