Updated 24 April 2020
The investment bank, VSA Capital, has hinted that politics, rather than science, could overturn the moratorium on onshore fracking in England.
Anti-fracking campaigners have responded that the reasons for the moratorium remain and it should stay in place.
The moratorium was introduced on 2 November 2019, following studies into earth tremors induced by fracking at Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road PNR-1z well a year earlier.
Announcing the pause, the government and the Oil & Gas Authority, which commissioned the studies, said they could not be confident that fracking would be “safe, sustainable and of minimal disturbance” or would not cause “unacceptable levels of seismicity”.
But in an article about Egdon Resources’ interim accounts published this week, Oliver O’Donnell, head of research at VSA Capital suggested there was scope for a “political reversal” of the moratorium.
“Whilst there is no time frame for the moratorium stated in the [November 2019] announcement, the grounds for the change in policy suggest a potentially challenging threshold to overcome more likely to be reversed by politics than science.
“Indeed, with the threshold regarding “unacceptable levels” of seismicity undefined this provides scope for a political reversal.”
Apparently referring to the Covid-19 lockdown, Mr O’Donnell said fracking could appeal to ministers:
“In light of recent events, which are raising further questions about energy security and over-reliance on global supply chains, unlocking the UK’s energy potential through unconventionals may rise up the agenda.
“Furthermore, the potential for job creation, largely in the north of England would be a tempting proposition particularly given the economic impact of the lockdown.”
Fracking at Preston New Road had already been suspended when the moratorium was announced. The OGA put a stop to it on 26 August 2019 when Cuadrilla’s operations caused the UK’s largest fracking-induced tremor.
At the time of the moratorium announcement, the director of regulation at the Oil & Gas Authority (OGA), Tom Wheeler, said:
“the OGA believes that further detailed geomechanical analysis would be needed before we could evaluate with confidence whether hydraulic fracturing could resume in the Fylde, or elsewhere, consistent with the government’s policy aims.”
The Preston New Road Action Group, which opposed Cuadrilla’s activities, said today:
“Any changes to the moratorium must be led by the science and not by politics as it affects people’s health and wellbeing, recent events have shown us just how important our health is.
“The moratorium was put in place because what happened at Preston New Road could not be explained, as far as we are aware this is still the case. Therefore, the reasons for the moratorium still exist.”
Claire Stephenson, of the campaign group, Frack Free Lancashire, said:
“Murmurings that suggest any reversal of the fracking moratorium may be down to a political decision, rather than science-led, seems rather contrived and fanciful.
“The UK fracking experiment experienced in Lancashire was a clear result of a downright failure on many fronts, including seismicity. The uncontrollable run of seismic activity and resulting earthquakes was a surprise to even Cuadrilla, who could not have predicted such an outcome.”
Egdon Resources has said:
“[it] remains fully committed to working with the OGA and other regulators to demonstrate that we can operate safely and in an environmentally responsible manner.”
Mr O’Donnell’s comments follow a call by David Green, the director of the right-of-centre thinktank Civitas, to lift the moratorium because of the impact of Covid-19 on the economy.
Writing in the Spectator magazine last week, he described what he called the government’s hostility to fracking as a “serious hindrance” to economic recovery. He said the policy was “a luxury we can no longer afford”.
He also said:
“It will not be possible to keep the government’s promise to spread prosperity to the North without fracking. Refusing to develop fracking is a blunder equivalent to turning our backs on the North Sea oil and gas industry.”
But opponents of the industry in Lancashire – the only UK county that has seen high volume hydraulic fracturing, – dismissed this argument.
Preston New Road Action group said:
“Recent restrictions under the lockdown have significantly improved air quality, thus demonstrating what a harmful impact human activity is having on the world we live in. Meanwhile recent studies show the fugitive emissions released by frack sites in the USA are far higher than previously thought. The conclusion is obvious; fracking should not be pursued in the UK, especially when more sustainable alternatives exist”.
Frack Free Lancashire’s Claire Stephenson said:
“Aside from the obvious damage that was caused by the fracking attempts, the indications from shale projects across the globe are not great for investors and speculators: a rapid decline in fracking projects across the USA and the mounting debt of billions of dollars is not a tempting industry to pursue in the likely onslaught of a global recession.
“The rating agency, Moody’s stated that in the third quarter of 2019, 91 per cent of defaulted US corporate debt was caused by oil and gas companies, with April 2020 seeing a five-year total bankruptcy of 215 oil and gas companies totalling $130 billion dollars of debt.
“The future will be built on renewable and clean energy. Relics like fracking should remain in the past, where all outdated and unnecessary extreme extraction techniques need to be.”
The OGA said it intended to commission further research to incorporate new data from Cuadrilla’s August 2019 fracks. Would-be fracking companies have said they have been working with regulators to show that the operation could be done “safely and environmentally responsibly.”
Updated 24 April 2020: Correction to make it clear that the quotes were from Oliver O’Donnell, of VSA Capital, in a comment on Egdon interim accounts. Egdon Resources made it clear that Mr O’Donnell’s comments were not, and never had been, the view of the company.