Uncertain future for UK fracking following key resignation and disagreement over rules

anti fracking protest
An anti-fracking protest in Balcombe in August 2013 against energy firm Cuadrilla

Clouds seemed to be gathering over the future of fracking in the UK following the resignation in late April of the country’s shale gas commissioner Natascha Engel, a former Labour MP and deputy speaker of the House of Commons.

Her position had been made untenable, she suggested, by the unwillingness of business secretary Greg Clark to review the regulatory limit for earth tremors caused by fracking, which is currently 0.5 on the Richter scale, the level at which Cuadrilla had halted its own drilling operations near Blackpool in late 2018.

Speaking to the FT, she said this was “much weaker than the rumble you might feel when walking above a Tube train”, and the fact that operators have to suspend operations for 18 hours, following its occurrence “made operations impossible.” Fracking operators Cuadrilla and Ineos had both previously made statements to that effect – Cuadrilla in February when it declared the current rules incompatible with the production of shale gas commercially, and Ineos in early April when it said it would abandon any fracking plans unless there was a change.

Declaring that policy was being driven by “environmental lobbying rather than science”, Engel also told the BBC that she had accepted the job – six months before – on the understanding that these “ridiculously low limts on earth tremors” were going to be reviewed.

Speaking to NewScientist, geologists Ben Edwards of the University of Liverpool and Brian Baptie of the British Geological Survey, said they believed the threshold could safely rise by another 1.5 on the scale. But the same article suggested the existing constraints had been put in place to leave a safe margin beyond the point where dangerous events might occur.

The Government maintained that the limits had been set in place several years ago, at a point when – as Energy Minister Clare Perry pointed out – there had been no indication from the industry that this would be a show-stopper. Observers also linked the apparent intransigence to the current turmoil over Brexit, which is depriving many matters of the attention they deserve.

The Government continued to uphold its support for the UK fracking industry and its potential “to be a new domestic energy source, and create thousands of well-paid, quality jobs” but also said it doesn’t plan to review the UK’s traffic light system (TLS) used to regulate seismic activity caused by the method, and such plans have never been on the cards.