For once, Jeremy Corbyn is right. The government’s announcement of a moratorium in fracking is an election stunt – and attempt to snatch a few leave-voting seats in the North at the expense of damaging Britain’s energy policy for the next couple of decades, as well as causing higher carbon emissions.
Announcing the block on fracking on Radio Four on Saturday morning, business secretary Andrea Leadsom said the government had reached its decision because the Oil and Gas Authority had concluded that it was impossible to predict when ‘earthquakes’ might be caused and what magnitude they might be. This followed a tremor measuring 2.9 on the Richter scale in August.
Let’s pass over Leadsom’s description of fracking-related tremors as ‘earthquakes’. To use that term to describe a tremor of 2.9 on the Richter scale is like calling a ripple on the Serpentine a tsunami. At that level a tremor can just about be felt. It is way below the level which could cause damage to buildings or anything else on the surface.
Did Leadsom really think the Oil and Gas Authority would report back that tremors were predictable? Seismologists have been trying to do forecast earthquakes for centuries without success. In 2012, six Italian scientists were jailed for manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake in the country in 2009 – but later acquitted when the court accepted that earthquakes are fundamentally unpredictable events.
Today’s decision has been described as a moratorium rather than a permanent ban, which will be lifted, according to Leadsom, “when the science changes”. But the science is unlikely to change much in the near future – seismic activity will remain unpredictable, as will the fact that fracking is only capable of causing minor tremors; it is not like the sliding of the Earth’s tectonic plates at the San Andreas fault. So to take Leadsom at her word, this is tantamount to a permanent ban.
This is something of a shame, not least because fracking could give Britain the opportunity to move towards self-sufficiency in energy once again – something we haven’t been for the past 15 years, owing to the decline of North Sea oil and gas. In the medium term, abandoning UK shale gas will lead UK carbon emissions that are higher than they need be.
One day, we may well be able to get by without fossil fuels – the government has set itself a target of achieving this by 2050. But in the meantime the alternative to UK-produced shale gas will be imported gas – either that or we burn far filthier coal for much longer than 2025, the current proposed date for phasing out UK coal-burning entirely. A government study in 2013 estimated the carbon emissions for various different sources of gas.
UK-produced shale gas would result in slightly higher greenhouse gas emissions, unit for unit, than North Sea-produced gas – largely on account of methane leakage from fracked wells. Emissions would be around ten per cent lower, however, than those from piped gas from Russia or liquified natural gas imported in refrigerated ships from the US and the Gulf. These latter two sources are going to be increasingly important in years to come.
Boris Johnson once accepted the argument for a UK shale gas industry, to the point he once said he wanted to “leave no stone unfracked”. But he has now ratted on the industry for narrow electoral gain.