Fracking for energy security in the UK: 4 key considerations for government

Fracking experts set out the key considerations for the Government when it comes shale gas exploration and production in the UK.

By Mark Ireland, Newcastle University; Jo Hawkins, University of Leeds; Rachel Brown, Newcastle University

Last updated:

The Energy Security Strategy puts domestic oil and gas production as a priority. And Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has commissioned the British Geological Survey to carry out a scientific review of fracking. It’s critical that the Government weighs up carefully if shale gas has a part play in the UK’s energy supply.

1. Is shale gas likely to make significant contribution to UK gas supply?

To date, any shale gas reserves in the UK remain unproven, despite the reported potential for shale gas resource.

  • The resource estimates are now a decade old, yet frequently cited by UKOOG (the onshore oil and gas trade body).
  • Previous estimates were based on grossly oversimplified geological models – this is demonstrated by new scientific evidence (Whitelaw et al., 2019, Palci et al., 2020, Lodhia, et al., 2022 .
  • Short term production could start from five production well pads, each with 16 wells, within 12-18 months, according to IGas [IGas Full Year Results].
  • It will take between three and five years to see shale gas production make a significant contribution to UK supply, according to Cuadrilla [Today Programme]
  • Any current estimates are based on limited data across restricted geopgraphic areas over the past 10 years.
  • At best, shale gas companies can only estimate the potential for a handful of small-scale development options, certainly not the outdated 4000 well scenario still quoted by UKOOG [EY, 2014].
  • Realistically, anything other than small scale developments would require a significant drilling programme preceeded by geophysical data acquistion, to determine the commercial viability.

This is all dependent on being able to carry out exploration safely in a way that is acceptable to local communities. Which leads on to one of the most contentious issues in shale gas exploration.

2. Induced seismicity (fracking induced eathquakes)

The injection of fluids under high pressure for fracking can lead to earthquakes. Commonly this is referred to as induced seismicity.

Can we prevent the impacts of induced seismicity?

Induced seismicity at levels above the regulatory threshold led to the moratorium on fracking. The onshore oil and gas regulator, the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA, formerly known as Oil and Gas Authority), has a clear line on this issue:

further detailed geomechanical analysis would be needed before we could evaluate with confidence whether hydraulic fracturing could resume”.

There remain challenges in predicting the magnitude of induced seismicity during fracking operations [Kettlety and Verdon, 2021] and as such it is difficult to see how the NSTA could change its position on the moratorium.

The existing regulations, set out by the NSTA in the Traffic Light System (TLS), have been effective in closely managing seismicity induced during fracking operations. Calls from UKOOG and its members to relax the existing regulations are seemingly based solely on:

The shale gas industry has presented no new evidence of how any potential future operations would be carried out to mitigate an unacceptable level of induced seismicity. There is no new evidence that suggests that public attitudes towards induced seismicity have changed.

Proponents of shale gas point out that there are inconsistencies in the regulation of seismicity induced by different industrial activities, such as geothermal, where the management and control of seismicity uses British Standards and local planning guidelines related ground vibration or motion.

They use this as a justification to relax the current rules for hydraulic fracturing. Rather than focusing on comparisons, the question remains: what new data is there to suggest that the magnitude of seismicity induced by hydraulic fracturing can be managed with improved confidence?

3. To deliver at pace and scale, would we need changes to the planning regime?

If the moratorium was to be lifted tomorrow, it is hard to see how the pace and scale-up of shale gas developments could deliver on what the industry is promising.

Planning decisions are made within statutory timeframes.We know that numerous shale gas planning applications have far exceeded these timeframes. All of this leads to high levels of uncertainty for both operators and local communities.

Operators would like to see the planning process expedited

Because of :

  • challenges experienced under the current planning system,
  • the longer time scales involved in comparison to the system in the US

UKOOG and its members suggest that shale gas could be explicitly included and dealt with under the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP) regime.

This is not impossible, as implied by the Government’s intention to accelerate offshore wind growth (see Energy Security Strategy). But this is not considered favourable for onshore oil and gas.

The results of a government consultation, which was open to all, on introducing this very change in 2018 indicated overwhelming opposition (83% of consultation respondents). Concerns were raised over the impact on local democracy and the risks associated with shale gas. Use of the NSIP regime could potentially provide greater certainty about the timings of determining planning applications. Yet it is not clear that it would speed up the application process given it is expected to take around 16 months.

The NSIP process is no quick fix.

4. How does shale gas fit with the UK’s climate change targets?

The UK has a legal commitment to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This means that a move away from burning fossil fuels in buildings and cars must begin this decade. It also means that the growth of renewables in the power sector must continue at pace.

Gas reliance is falling, and predicted to decrease further - the Government must consider whether shale has a role in meeting the UK’s current reliance on natural gas, given that long-term demand is set to fall. This also applies to support new domestic oil and gas developments more generally, as it has indicated in the energy security Strategy. Increased energy efficiency can play a greater role - As noted by the Committee for Climate Change, natural gas will have some role to play in industry - or in combination with carbon capture - for decades to come.

The strategy identifies that producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than importing from abroad. But there are multiple options for the UK to reduce its exposure to global gas prices during the net zero transition phase. This is particularly true of reducing demand in the housing sector by improving insulation, boiler efficiency and by switching to heat pumps. Demand-side reductions are conspicuous by their absence in the recent Energy Security Strategy.

Any decision on shale gas must be evidence-based. If the review by the British Geological Survey provides evidence to lift the moratorium, the Government must set out clear plans for how it will be compatible with the net zero strategy.

Selected references

  • Ernst & Young, Lewis, C., Speirs, J. and MacSweeney, R., 2014. Getting ready for UK shale gas: Supply chain and skills requirements and opportunities. UKOOG.
  • Kettlety, T. and Verdon, J.P., 2021. Fault triggering mechanisms for hydraulic fracturing-induced seismicity from the preston new road, UK case study. Frontiers in Earth Science, 9, p.382.
  • Lodhia, B.H., Parent, A., Fraser, A.J., Nuemaier, M. and Hennissen, J.A., 2022. Thermal evolution and resources of the Bowland Basin (NW England) from apatite fission-track analyses and multidimensional basin modelling.
  • Palci, F., Fraser, A.J., Neumaier, M., Goode, T., Parkin, K. and Wilson, T., 2020. Shale oil and gas resource evaluation through 3D basin and petroleum systems modelling: a case study from the East Midlands, onshore UK. Petroleum Geoscience, 26(4), pp.525-543.
  • Whitelaw, P., Uguna, C.N., Stevens, L.A., Meredith, W., Snape, C.E., Vane, C.H., Moss-Hayes, V. and Carr, A.D., 2019. Shale gas reserve evaluation by laboratory pyrolysis and gas holding capacity consistent with field data. Nature communications, 10(1), pp.1-10.