Does the UK really need fracked gas?

10 January 2019 (Last Updated February 6th, 2020 13:26)

Proponents of fracking in the UK argue the controversial gas extraction method can boost the UK’s energy security and reduce its reliance on imports. Critics, however, claim fracking is unnecessary, dangerous and contradictory to the government’s climate change targets. So, who is right? Heidi Vella investigates.

Does the UK really need fracked gas?
In October, Cuadrilla restarted fracking in Lancaster in Northwest England. Credit: Courtesy of David Holt

Since the first hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas began in the UK in 2011, it has been marred by lengthy delays, passionate protests, legal challenges and worrisome earth tremors.

Yet, despite the significant impact of public opposition thus far, the government and fracking companies maintain the process is safe and that fracked gas is pivotal to securing Britain’s future energy needs.

In October, after a seven-year hiatus, fracking by exploration and production company Cuadrilla restarted in Lancaster in Northwest England.

Though operations were temporarily halted – once again – due to earth tremors, the company has since reported that, for the first time, shale gas has flowed from the UK’s only operational fracking site. The UK’s fracking industry is now officially underway.

But still the debate continues, with demonstrators most recently gluing themselves to a government building amid fresh calls for a moratorium after the latest tremors. So, is fracking in the UK really worth it?

Securing the UK’s energy future

The UK is heavily reliant on gas for electricity and heating. In 2017, natural gas met nearly two-thirds of total domestic energy demand, and presently around half of what is needed comes from imports. The government estimates that due to declining domestic production this could rise to 72% by 2030.

Therefore, it’s true to say that an increase in domestic production would reduce the UK’s reliance on imports.

The British Geological Survey has estimated there could be more than 3.7 trillion cubic metres of gas in the Bowland Shale, a formation that runs across most of north and central England. However, it is not yet known how much of this is commercially extractable.

“Gas production through fracking would form part of an overall energy strategy of reducing exposure to volatility in the international gas markets and ensuring stable supply during peak demand periods,” says Edgar van der Meer, a senior analyst at NRG Expert.

He adds that harsher winters are often not localised and instead affect the broader region, pushing up capacity constraints and prices.

However, while this is true, Dr Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, argues that spikes in demand can be managed in other ways; rather than addressing the UK’s over-reliance on gas, building a new industry around it reinforces the problem.

“There are other ways to manage heightened demand such as by reducing it overall, by making industrial processes more efficient and insulating homes, which could compensate for the shortage,” he explains. “We should be diversifying [away from gas] with more wind farms and solar panels to make it easier to trade energy.”

Is gas demand over-exaggerated?

A new report published by New Resource Partners, a consultancy that advises governments and investors on renewables, says the need for natural gas to support intermittent renewables has been over exaggerated in the long-term. According to its modelling, the UK needs only 38% of the gas capacity it has now to keep the lights on.

Energy security, it states, can be achieved through a combination of gas-fired stations and interconnectors, as well as with demand side response and energy storage.

The report states only 14GW of gas-fired generation will be needed to meet demand on the calmest of days by 2030, compared with 37GW of operational gas capacity in 2017. The scenario envisages 81GW of wind and solar generation.

Politics at play: post-Brexit impact on energy

The issue of energy security is often politicised, which could be in part driving current government policy. For example, much was made of the fact the UK took a shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia during a cold spell last winter.

“This didn’t sit well politically with some people in the Conservative party,” says Marshall.

However, in reality, the UK’s reliance on Russian gas is only around a meagre 1% of imports, according to reports. On the contrary, the UK has access to diverse sources, including Europe and the Middle East. Though, van der Meer warns that a post-Brexit trade regime has yet to be established for future relations with the European Union/European Economic Area in relation to energy trading.

He, too, agrees that the biggest risk is ‘perhaps political’ because as electricity costs rise, so will the use of alternative fuels, such as gas.

But can UK shale gas reduce local energy prices?

Domestically produced shale gas in the UK is not likely to see gas price cuts on the scale of those in the US because of the way the European gas market is structured, says a Cuadrilla spokesperson.

“Indigenous production would, however, be cheaper than imports of LNG, improve the balance of payments and provide improved security of supply,” the spokesperson added.

Are the recoverable reserves worth it?

So far, Cuadrilla has said the volumes of gas returning to the surface at its Preston New Road site are ‘relatively small’ but considering the early stages and the micro-seismic operating constraints, ‘it is a good early indication of the gas production potential’.

Overall, in its licence area in Northwest England, Cuadrilla believes there is 200 trillion cubic feet of gas trapped in the shale rock.

However, Marshall points out that local geology is far more fault ridden in the wells and the reservoirs making extraction far harder.

“It has to be drilled into many more times, whereas in the US you can reach much more from one drilling hole, so it is much more expensive here,” he says.

Furthermore, companies are working under stricter regulation and environmental laws, not to mention with increased opposition and higher population density.

“We are not going to turn into some hydrocarbon exporting nation like we did when the North Sea was at its height in the 70s and 80s,” adds Marshall.

Can gas extraction be squared with UK climate goals?

The Climate Change Act commits the UK Government by law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. Cuadrilla say natural gas from shale can, and should, be seen as complementary to increasing renewable energy capacity in electricity generation.

And the government itself says that every scenario proposed by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) setting out how the UK could meet its legally binding 2050 emissions reduction target includes demand for natural gas.

However, for many, developing a fracking industry is a step in the wrong direction to meeting these goals.

“The danger is if you encourage a new industry [fracking] to start, it can result in it being locked-in beyond the date, at which our climate laws say we should be using very little gas, and then it starts to undermine our climate targets,” says Marshall.

Fracking’s positive impact on the UK, in terms of securing energy supply and reducing electricity costs, is yet to be realised. But it’s clear that shale gas is not the only, or even the key, solution to the UK’s future energy security, but just one part of a bigger puzzle.

While natural gas is pivotal to the energy transition, it will be interesting to see if, given the current exploration delays, the huge evolution anticipated for smart grid technology, the falling price of renewables, battery technology and smarter energy management, the government’s backing of fracking ages well.