Boris Johnson's fracking nightmare

Moratorium announced, but UK government climate strategy in ruins

The British government just banned fracking. Or rather they placed a "moratorium" on it, because four separate studies for the Oil and Gas Authority pointed out what residents near Britain's only fracking site have been saying for months: it's causing earth tremors strong enough to trigger 18 hour pause in drilling. And, say the scientists, there is no way to predict it won't cause significant and widespread damage to property.

“The history of fracking in the UK is a classic story of corporate capture of politicians.”

The move was spun to the Conservative-friendly media as a way to neutralise Labour's attacks on Johnson's environmental policy. But it won't.

Because within hours of making their headline move, the Conservatives were forced to backtrack. First announcing that it was just a "pause" and then issuing a statement saying fracking was "something the UK will need for the next decades".

The history of fracking in the UK is a classic story of corporate capture of politicians. Using the "energy trilemma" - the need to ensure security of supply alongside the need for cheap energy and decarbonisation - the fracking companies convinced both the Tory and Libdem parties, and Labour under Ed Miliband - that shale gas could be justified on grounds of national security and as a transitional source of cleaner energy.

Despite almost universal opposition from the communities where the exploration licences were granted, the Tory party made fracking its special cause. Recently it proposed to fast-track planning applications for fracking sites, and to designate them as Nationally Significant Infrastructure, removing them from local authority control. Today, both these regulatory changes have been pulled.

So keen was Theresa May's government to push through fracking that it appointed former Labour MP Natascha Engel as its "fracking commissioner". After losing her seat, Engel went on to work for the actual fracking company Ineos, before getting a plum job as the government's persuader-in-chief. 

Behind the scenes Engel pushed hard for the government to lift the threshold for the size of earthquake needed to trigger a pause in drilling. When they refused she quit, saying “Firms have invested hundreds of millions of pounds... on the basis that Government policy would be rational, that it would be scientific. But it’s not."

Sadly for Ineos and Cuadrilla, and for Engel herself, it is exactly the science that has driven the government's decision today. A study by Ben Edwards et al, commissioned by the OGA, showed that, while the maxumum strenght of tremor felt to date would cause no significant damage, it was "possible" for an tremor to happen that damaged 1% of all buildings in the region and "unlikely" - but not impossible - that a tremor would damage 10% of all buildings slightly, and 3% substantially, bringing down the chimneys of one in 20 homes within a 10x10km range (see graphic)

Despite the wavering, it's likely that the OGA report and the immediate Tory response represents the death-knell of fracking.

There are 63 shale licence areas in operation, which may now be worthless. The government has spent over £32 million promoting fracking, with no significant gas production to show for it.

The move leaves Conservative climate and energy policy in disarray. They are formally committed to the Paris Climate Agreement targets, and May signed up to a zero-net-carbon target for 2050. The security of supply issue is real for Britain unless there is massive investment in renewables. But the Tories imposed a moratorium on onshore wind, and reversed tax breaks designed to boost the development of solar. 

Many of the party’s local candidates have been playing to the crowd of xenophobes and climate deniers stirred up by UKIP and the Brexit Party, and have often championed fracking as an alternative to renewables - so they will have to either backtrack or keep the flame burning for a doomed extractive industry.

For Labour both the move, and the confusion surrounding it, is yet another gift. Labour has pledged to ban fracking - and looks set to make the Green New Deal, with a commitment to install 7,000 new offshore wind turbines, 2,000 further onshore turbines and new solar installations covering 22,000 football pitches-worth of land (see graphic above). Its Thirty by 2030 report, issued last week, represents a comprehensive turn to renewables.

In the Financial Times today, I outline how Labour is set to reframe its entire fiscal and monetary expansion plans around the 2030 climate target. So this will be the climate election, and the Conservatives will have to do a lot more than put a moratorium on fracking to achieve a coherent alternative to what the opposition proposes.