In angry exchanges in the House of Commons, the new business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, on Thursday made four controversial claims about fracking. But do they stand up?
1. “It is safe, it is shown to be safe, the scare stories have been disproved time and time again.”
Despite the unequivocal declaration of the business secretary, the jury is still out on the safety or otherwise of fracking. The British Geological Survey, commissioned by the government, says forecasting the occurrence of large earthquakes from fracking and their expected magnitude is complex and remains a scientific challenge.
Equally difficult is weighing up and mitigating risks from fracking-induced quakes, or predicting the occurrence of larger tremors during drilling operations. BGS says rates of fracking-induced earthquakes in other countries, where shale gas production has been going on for many years, vary considerably.
Fracking also risks contaminating groundwater, according to the BGS, which says: “Groundwater may be potentially contaminated by extraction of shale gas both from the constituents of shale gas itself, from the formulation and deep injection of water containing a cocktail of additives used for hydraulic fracturing and from flowback water which may have a high content of saline formation water.”
A 2016 study by the US Environmental Protection Agency found evidence that fracking can affect drinking water resources under many different circumstances, particularly where there are low groundwater levels.
This week Lord Deben, chair of the Climate Change Committee, warned ministers to look at the facts. “The facts are that you have to deal with fracking in an environmentally sensitive way or otherwise you have serious results.”
2. “The hysteria about seismic activity fails to understand that the Richter scale is a logarithmic scale. It seems to think that it is a straight arithmetic scale, which of course it is not.”
Rees-Mogg is correct in one sense; the Richter scale is logarithmic, which means a one unit increase in magnitude corresponds to a tenfold increase in amplitude.
Whether that equates to hysteria around earthquakes caused by fracking is subjective. the earthquake of 2.9 local magnitude (ML) which struck Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road site in Lancashire in 2019 and led to the moratorium on fracking was 251 times bigger than the current maximum fracking safety limit of 0.5ML.
When the fracking-induced earthquake at Preston New Road struck on an August bank holiday Monday, it was felt across the region. A freedom of information request showed the BGS received 197 reports of damage from eight postcode areas after the quake.
However, as pointed out by the industry body UKOOGthe surface vibration from the quake was about one half of what is permitted at UK construction sites and lasted for a total of two seconds.
3. “Bringing on this supply will bring us cheaper energy, which we need.”
If shale gas is produced at scale in England it will be sold at international market, something acknowledged by the current chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, who said this year: “If we lifted the fracking moratorium, it would take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes – and it would come at a high cost for communities and our precious countryside.
“No amount of shale gas from hundreds of wells dotted across rural England would be enough to lower the European price any time soon.
“And 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. They are not charities, after all.”
UKOOG has suggested, but not committed to, reducing gas prices for local residents to the sites through a community benefits package.
4. “This is of such importance, and it is sheer playfulness that opposes it.”
Some could argue Rees-Mogg is the luddite for backing more fossil fuel extraction, which dates back at scale to the 1800s. In a letter to the prime minister this week more than 100 businesses urged the government to prioritize energy efficiency, decarbonisation and renewables to accelerate the shift from fossil fuels.
The recent Energy Transition Investment Trends report from BloombergNEF also painted the future as clean energy, saying renewables are now the default choice for most countries looking to add or replace power-generating capacity.
“This is no longer due to mandates or subsidies, but simply because these technologies are more often the most cost-competitive,” said Luiza Demôro, head of energy transitions at BloombergNEF.