What’s all the fuss about fracking in the UK?


The UK’s world of politics plunged deeper into turmoil on Wednesday night after a debate on fracking led to alleged physical altercations between Prime Minister Liz Truss’ aides and lawmakers from her own Conservative Party.

Last month, Truss’ government formally lifted a ban on fracking for shale gas that had been in place for England since 2019, arguing that strengthening the country’s energy supply was an “absolute priority.” The main opposition Labor Party brought forward a motion to restore the ban, but some Conservative members of parliament reported they were bullied, even manhandled, into voting in line with Truss.

But what exactly is fracking, and why is it so contentious? Here’s what you need to know.

What is fracking?

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves drilling into the Earth and injecting water and chemicals at high pressure to break rocks and release the gas trapped inside.
The Cuadrilla fracking site in Preston, in northwestern England.
The Cuadrilla fracking site in Preston, in northwestern England.

Why does the government want to do it?

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European gas prices have surged to record highs and Britain is subsidizing bills for households and businesses at a predicted cost of more than 100 billion pounds ($110.4 billion).

Britain is heavily reliant on natural gas, which will take years to reduce. Gas heats around 80% of the country’s homes and on some days it can be used to generate almost 50% of the country’s electricity.

The government is seeking to increase domestic gas production, which has been in decline, to reduce its reliance on imports. The industry body Offshore Energies UK says that without new investment, Britain will have to import around 80% of its gas by 2030, up from around 60% now.

How much gas could be produced?

Scientists say this is still unclear. Since only few test wells have been drilled, there are no estimates of proven reserves to confidently predict how much shale gas would be technically and economically viable to extract by fracking.

The government has said that the only way to assess this is to allow drilling to start.

“Lifting the pause… will enable drilling to gather this further data, building an understanding of UK shale gas resources and how we can safely carry out shale gas extraction in the UK,” a statement from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said last month.

Why is it controversial?

Injecting fluids at high pressure can cause tremors in the Earth, while people in the communities affected are also concerned about the impact on the landscape, tourism and agriculture.

Shale gas is also a fossil fuel and campaigners say that extracting more fossil fuels goes against the country’s target to reach net zero emissions by 2050. It also uses a large amount of water and environmental groups have raised fears over possible groundwater contamination.
Fracking has proved hugely unpopular among voters.
Fracking has proved hugely unpopular among voters.

A BEIS public attitude tracker, which uses random sampling, in Autumn 2021 showed opposition to fracking far outweighs support, with just 4% supporting the practice and 45% opposing it.

Which companies are involved?

More than 100 exploration and drilling licenses have been awarded to several companies including Cuadrilla, Third Energy, IGas, Aurora Energy Resources and Ineos.

Cuadrilla, 96% owned by Australia’s AJ Lucas, was the only one of these firms to receive consent to begin fracking.

It found a natural gas resource at its site in northwestern England in 2019, but the rules around tremors meant its operations had to keep stopping, meaning that neither of its two wells could be fully flow-tested.

Which other countries have done it?

Onshore gas fracking is commonplace in the United States, where it has helped to drive down the cost of gas, but the practice remains banned in many European countries, such as Germany and France, while few European countries are believed to have suitable shale gas geology for the technology.

Will it cut energy bills?

Not in the short term and questions remain over how much gas can actually be extracted. Even if large amounts are recovered, the price of this gas would still be subject to global prices.

Former British Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng said in March when he was Business and Energy secretary gas fracking would not lead to lower British gas prices. “With the best will in the world, private companies are not going to sell the shale gas they produce to UK consumers below the market price,” he tweeted.