Fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) - which uses high pressure fluids to create cracks in sub-surface rocks in order to release trapped gas - will not be allowed to proceed in England until new evidence is provided that the process is safe, the government has said.
The decision was made on the basis of a report by the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), which found that it is not currently possible to accurately predict the probability or magnitude of earthquakes linked to fracking operations.
The publication of the report follows a series of seismic tremors at the UK’s only fracking site, which is operated by Cuadrilla, including a 2.9 magnitude tremor this August.
Commenting on the decision to halt fracking business and energy secretary Andrea Leadsom said: “Whilst acknowledging the huge potential of UK shale gas to provide a bridge to a zero carbon future, I’ve also always been clear that shale gas exploration smust be carried out safely. After reviewing the OGA’s report into recent seismic activity at Preston New Road, it is clear that we cannot rule out future unacceptable impacts on the local community.
The OGA has advised the government that until further studies can provide clarity, they will not be able to say with confidence that further hydraulic fracturing would meet the government’s policy aims of ensuring it is safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance to those living and working nearby.
Critics of the decision have accused the government - which has previously been extremely enthusiastic about fracking - of electioneering. Prof Geoffrey Maitland, Professor of Energy Engineering, Imperial College London said: “I believe this decision and its timing is politically and electorally motivated to make the government look environmentally pro-active, keep the anti-fracking lobby happy and match the line of Labour and the Lib Dems – rather than being responsible and honest about the UK’s future cleaner energy needs and realistic routes for the transition towards zero-carbon emissions.”
Maitland also played down the potential impact of the seismic events described by the report. “Even events ten times stronger (2.5ML), described as ‘possible’, would result in only 0.2 per cent of buildings sustaining structural damage or moderate non-structural damage,” he said. “You have to get to seismic events 100 times stronger than the one felt at Preston North Road (2.5ML) before there was a significant risk of widespread building damage”
Prof Jon Gluyas, director of the Durham Energy Institute, Durham University, agreed that the decision was politically motivated, but suggested the report had given the government a useful opportunity to backtrack on much-trumpeted but over-inflated plans to exploit the UK’s shale gas resources.
“The government ban on fracking is both politically expedient in the run up to the general election and a neat way of ignoring the now inescapable truth that the projected shale gas potential for the UK is tiny at best. We have though, as a nation, wasted a decade hoping for more gas to heat our homes rather than installing ultra-low carbon geothermal heating like that used in much of Europe.”
Others welcomed the government's decision and argued that the risks posed by the process had not been underplayed. “One big earthquake could cause damage to thousands of buildings in tens of seconds,” said Prof Stuart Haszeldine, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh. “The frackers have been beaten by the nature they wished to exploit - and ignored the evidence from their own boreholes - which showed right from the first borehole in 2011 at Preece Hall in Lancashire, that UK rocks are like a finely balanced sleeping lion - which if poked too hard will bite back.”