Fracking in England in 2022 was tied to the fate of the three prime ministers who held office during the year.
The moratorium, introduced in 2019 by Boris Johnson, suddenly looked shaky when he resigned in the summer. His replacement, Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, Liz Truss lifted the moratorium on her third day in office. 49 days later, it was reinstated by her successor, Rishi Sunak.
Fracking back on the agenda
After more than a year largely out of the headlines, the debate about onshore fracking in the UK surged back with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February.
In the following weeks, the industry, supported by some right-wing politicians, media and thinktanks, stepped up lobbying for the lifting of the moratorium in England.
Cuadrilla’s owner revealed it spent more than $1m, partly on strategies to allow fracking to go ahead.
Shale gas supporters claimed the process could deliver long-term benefits for Britain, including help with the cost-of-living crisis. Opponents challenged the claims and the Johnson government stood firm on the moratorium. But there were signs of conflicting messages from government.
In February, Cuadrilla was ordered by the North Sea Transition Authority (NSTA) to plug its fracked wells at Preston New Road in Lancashire. The news was opposed by the industry and welcomed by residents and campaigners.
A crane arrived in early March to begin work, to the fury of some pro-shale gas commentators. By the end of the month, the NSTA withdrew the order. Cuadrilla now has until June 2023 to come up with alternative uses for the Preston New Road wells.
The government’s long-awaited energy security strategy, published in April, had just two references to onshore shale gas. One stressed the need to meet “rigorous safety and environmental protection both above ground and sub-surface”.
Ministers refused planning permission for Ineos shale gas exploration plans for Woodsetts in South Yorkshire and IGas testing proposals for Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. Sir Jim Ratcliffe, of Ineos, was said to be “apoplectically cross” about the decision but neither Ineos nor IGas appealed against the decision.
Also in the spring, the then business secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, commissioned a review of fracking science from the British Geological Survey (BGS). This was seen by some as a sign that the moratorium could be lifted.
Spotlight on fracking in leadership contest
Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister and Conservative leader on 7 July 2022.
By the end of the month, the list of candidates to replace him had been reduced to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, both of whom supported fracking with local consent.
There were suggestions that fracking companies could poll residents, bypassing local councils. People could be offered money to have a shale gas site in their neighbourhood. Profits from shale gas could be paid into a sovereign wealth fund.
In August, the Daily Mail reported that households could get a 25% discount on their energy bills if they backed local fracking plans. The Telegraph reported that the Treasury would tell the new prime minister that fracking should be given the green light immediately to ease bills in the winter.
The leadership election result, announced on 5 September, gave Liz Truss, a former management accountant for Shell, 81,326 votes, 47% of eligible Conservative members. Her rival, Rishi Sunak, got 60,399 votes.
On 7 September, the prime minister’s spokesperson told journalists the Conservative manifesto, including the moratorium on fracking, “still stands in full”.
U-turn 1: Lifting the moratorium
On 8 September, Liz Truss opened a parliamentary debate on energy and told MPs:
“This is the moment to be bold”.
“We will end the moratorium on extracting our huge reserves of shale, which could get gas flowing as soon as six months from now where there is local support for it.”
During the debate, the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, quoted comments previously made by Ms Truss’s new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, that it would take “up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes” of a shale gas and at “high cost for communities and our precious countryside”.
Opponents complained about “a shocking lack of detail” in the announcement. The government was accused of delivering a “massive kick in the teeth for the vast majority of communities who don’t want fracking”. The industry described the move as “an entirely sensible decision”.
Within hours of the news, the death was announced of Queen Elizabeth II. The formal announcement on the moratorium was delayed for another fortnight.
Warnings and written ministerial statement
Despite the period of mourning, the debate about fracking continued.
IGas said it could drill 80 wells by September 2023 with “the right government support”. Initial production could supply three million homes, it said. The industry called for earthquake limits to be relaxed and for decision-making to bypass local councils.
Heads of the Climate Change Committee and National Infrastructure Committee had previously warned Liz Truss:
“our gas reserves – offshore or from shale – are too small to impact meaningfully the prices faced by UK consumers.”
The government’s ex chief scientific advisor, Sir David King, said the government had, in effect, abandoned net zero targets. Campaign groups warned of a “huge backlash” if the government agreed to industry demands to make shale gas production quicker and easier. CarbonBrief explained why fracking was not the answer to the UK energy crisis. Councils passed resolutions against fracking.
The formal lifting of the moratorium came on 22 September, when the then business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told parliament that people living or working near fracking sites should “tolerate a higher degree of risk and disturbance” in the national interest.
He accused fracking opponents of “hysteria” and “sheer Ludditery”. He made the unsubstantiated and frequently challenged claim that opposition to fracking had been funded by Russia.
He also said regulators of the fracking system should be “proactive in extending existing consents and permissions where practicable, to support the development of energy resources in the National interest”.
The government published the BGS review, which concluded there were “significant knowledge gaps” that made forecasting earthquakes caused by fracking a “scientific challenge”.
Frack Free Lancashire described fracking as a “failed technology that should be confined to the past”. Friends of the Earth said the government was planning to “throw communities under the bus”.
Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP for the area around Cuadrilla’s shale gas site, said:
“There is nothing Luddite about the people of Lancashire”.
Even Cuadrilla’s founder and former lobbyist had said fracking in the UK would be impossible at any meaningful scale.
The shale gas industry welcomed the confirmation. IGas said its shale gas assets had the potential to “provide secure and affordable energy for the UK in the near term”. Cuadrilla said the decision would “help the shale industry unlock UK onshore natural gas in quantities sufficient to meet the UK’s needs for decades to come”.
Within days, Cuadrilla’s owner, the Australian mining group, AJ Lucas, raised about £11.7m in a share placing to fund UK operations.
In an interview with BBC local radio in Lancashire, Liz Truss referred 10 times to the need for local consent for fracking operations. She also admitted she had not been to Cuadrilla’s Preston New Road shale gas site, where fracking-induced earthquakes led to the moratorium in 2019.
Ms Truss announced a consultation on gauging fracking consent. Friends of the Earth, Talk Fracking and Preston New Road Action Group began the first stage of legal action against the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg. He said he would welcome fracking in his back garden and suggested that fracking companies should canvas door-to-door for community support.
Chaotic debate and government collapse
On 19 October, Labour proposed a parliamentary motion calling for a future debate on banning fracking.
Conservative were initially ordered to vote against the motion or risk expulsion from the party. The government won the vote by 230 to 326.
But there was anger at the government’s tactics and the last-minute climb-down that the division was no longer regarded a vote of confidence.
There were also reports of Conservatives being manhandled into the No lobby – though some denied this happened.
The chief whip, Wendy Morton, said it was “one of those nights that I will probably never forget”.
Liz Truss resigned less than 24 hours after the vote.
New PM and U-turn 2
Rishi Sunak was selected as the new Conservative leader on 24 October.
The next day, in Downing Street, he told journalists that the party’s manifesto, which included the fracking moratorium, was the Conservative mandate.
At his first prime minister’s questions, on 26 October, he said the moratorium would be reinstated. The decision was confirmed two days later.
The fracking industry warned that the decision would come at “great economic, environmental and geopolitical cost”. IGas hinted at legal action against the government. Cuadrilla said the decision “beggars belief”.
Campaigners welcomed the second U-turn. Frack Free Lancashire said: “Fracking is not socially, politically, environmentally and economically viable”. Preston New Road Action Group called for a complete ban and urged Cuadrilla to restore its shale gas site. Friends of the Earth described the decision as “a fantastic victory”.
Other oil and gas plans
East Yorkshire: In March, East Yorkshire council backed plans for expansion and long-term production at Rathlin Energy’s West Newton-A site in Holderness. A local councillor asked the levelling up secretary to review the decision. In December, the planning permission was upheld. Reports suggested that the first of eight horizontal wells could be drilled in January-June 2023. In September, a plan commissioned by Rathlin Energy revealed that 15 wells could be drilled at West Newton in a decade, costing about £260m. The target for the site switched in September from oil back to gas. Rathlin was also granted a three-year extension of planning permission for its other East Yorkshire site, West Newton-B.
Lincolnshire: Councillors unanimously refused the third bid by Egdon Resources for more time at the undeveloped North Kelsey oil site, near Market Rasen (March 2022). Opponents had accused the company of “planning by stealth”. Egdon has lodged an appeal. The company also appealed against refusal of oil production at Biscathorpe in Lincolnshire Wolds. At a one-day hearing in October, the company was challenged over changes to the Biscathorpe plans. The ruling is expected in early 2023.
Lancashire: Cuadrilla confirmed in December it would be applying to extend the life of its Preston New Road shale gas site for another two years. The current planning permission expires in April 2023. Lancashire County Council previously said any application would not need a detailed environmental statement.
Isle of Wight: In March, UK Oil & Gas plc announced it would not appeal against a refusal of planning permission for oil exploration near the village of Arreton. In June, the company gave up its exploration licence covering the island.
Dorset:In March, South Western Energy withdrew an application for oil production at Puddletown, first submitted in 2019. It promised a new scheme, which would include higher oil output. So far, this has not been published. Also in Dorset, UKOG announced gas storage plans at Portland.
Surrey: Gas exploration plans by UKOG at Dunsfold were approved by ministers in June after an appeal, despite concerns about the impact on local landscapes and business. The local MP, Jeremy Hunt, said the scheme would cause “enormous environmental damage and disruption”. UKOG said this was “wholly false and untrue. Protect Dunsfold, backed by the Good Law Project, and Waverley Borough Council have sought to challenge the decision at the High Court.
Also in Surrey, councillors unanimously refused permission for IGas plans to use methane from its Bletchingley site to produce hydrogen without carbon capture and storage. UKOG plans to change the operation and layout of its site at Horse Hill would need an environmental impact assessment, the county council ruled in July. No application has yet been submitted. The council did approve plans to store more than 100 tonnes of crude oil at the Horse Hill site.
West Sussex: Angus Energy’s appeal got underway against the unanimous refusal of planning permission for well testing at Balcombe in West Sussex (Feb 2022). At the time of writing, the result had still not been published. In May, UKOG was granted another two years of planning permission at the Broadford Bridge oil site. This was the fourth time extension at the site.
Wressle: The Egdon Resources’ oil site in North Lincolnshire got formal approval to go into production in May. The first official figures were reported in December, at more than 700 barrels of oil per day.
Brockham: Oil production resumed in May at Brockham in Surrey after a gap of more than three years. The most recent data shows the site was producing 13 barrels a day. The operator, Angus Energy, was allowed in 2022 to reinject produced or formation water at the site.
Kimmeridge: For most of the year, Perenco’s oil site in Dorset continued to vent legally hundreds of tonnes of methane. In September, it installed a flare to burn waste gas, three years after it was ordered to use the gas to generate electricity.
Horse Hill: In May, two regulators gave permission for Horse Hill in Surrey to reinject waste water. The site was also allowed an extra year, until 30 September 2023, to drill a second well into the Kimmeridge formation. In March, the operator u-turned on how it would handle waste gas at its Horse Hill site. It sought changes to its environmental permit to burn up to 10 tonnes a day. In 2019, the company had promised to install four generators to turn the gas into electricity.
Misson: In November, council officials in Nottinghamshire issued enforcement notices against IGas and the owner of its Misson shale gas site for failing to carry out restoration work.
A scaled-back version of the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill received royal assent in April. Thousands of people had taken part in nationwide protests against it. Key anti-protest measures were defeated in the House of Lords. But the final legislation still included powers to allow police to clamp down on noisy protests in England and Wales.
In May, the government announced it was reviving some of the defeated powers in a new public order bill. If approved, the legislation would criminalise locking-on, going equipped to lock-on and obstruction of major transport works. It also extended stop and search powers for police and introduced serious disruption prevention orders to allow police to ban people from attending protests.
Fossil fuel campaigners carried out protests across the country, including the Conservative Party conference, major routes through central London, oil terminals, oil company headquarters, the Treasury, Lloyds of London, the National Gallery, the site of a new aviation pipeline, motorways, Schlumberger research centre in Cambridge and Aberdeen Harbour.
Several oil and gas companies secured court injunctions to prevent protest at terminals in England. Essex Police said the protests were creating an “unacceptable” risk of harm. In May, campaigners disrupted the Shell and UKOG AGMs.
Tributes were paid following the death of Keith Taylor, the former Green Party MEP, a leading opponent of the onshore industry and a supporter of non-violent protest.
Soon after we published this review, the death was announced of the fashion designer and anti-fracking campaigner, Dame Vivienne Westwood. More details here
The UK’s highest court is to rule next year on the climate impact of onshore oil production. Campaigner, Sarah Finch, won the right to take her legal challenge over oil extraction at Horse Hill to the Supreme Court. Her case failed at the appeal court but the judges were divided by two to one. The case will focus on whether Surrey County Council should have taken account of the carbon emissions from using oil extracted at Horse Hill. DrillOrDrop interview with Sarah Finch
The government accepted that its net zero strategy was unlawful, following a successful challenge by Friends of the Earth, Client Earth and the Good Law Project. The organisations argued that the strategy did not comply with the 2008 Climate Change Act because the government had not quantified how the policies would be achieved and by when. The government has until March 2023 to revise the strategy and show how legally-binding climate targets will be met.
A legal challenge to $1.15bn UK government funding of an LNG (liquified natural gas) project in Mozambique went to the High Court in March. The ruling was split. One judge supported the claim by Friends of the Earth that the funding was unlawful. The other supported the decision to fund the scheme by UK Export Finance. In December, the case was heard at the court of appeal. A ruling from that hearing is expected in early 2023.
Three campaigners lost their legal challenge to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the regulator, then the OGA, over the UK oil and gas strategy.
Ineos was criticised in March by the High Court for “improper conduct” and “inexcusable delay” over its injunction against anti-fracking protests. The company was ordered to pay more than £37,000 in costs and its bid to stay the claim (halt legal proceedings) was refused.
Losses widened at Ineos Upstream, which declared a loss of £3.679m in 2021, up more than 60% on the loss in 2020.
Reabold Resources, a partner in the West Newton sites in East Yorkshire, successfully fought off a bid by a group of investors to replace the directors.
Angus Energy put itself up for sale in January and had six expressions of interest but in April, the company ended the sale process. The company carried out several share placings to raise money: £1.4m in February, £675,000 in April, £2m in July, and £7.1m in December. The company acquired 100% of the Saltfleetby gas project for £14m. It connected Saltfleetby to the national grid and began drilling a sidetrack at the site.
Renewables company Wolfland Group took over the would-be fracking firm Third Energy to rescue stranded assets. The new owners and managers talked to DrillOrDrop in an extended interview. In February, the company was awarded £50,250 government funding for a feasibility study on using old gas wells for geothermal heat. A consultation found that people were strongly in favour.
A tax credit pushed Cuadrilla into profit, despite being “largely non-operational”, the company’s annual accounts reported.
Cuadrilla’s partner in Lancashire, Spirit Energy, changed its mind about withdrawing from onshore shale gas exploration. The company, a subsidiary of Centrica, said in July 2020 it would exit the Bowland licences. It now has the option to leave before the end of June 2023.
Egdon Resources announced a 500% increase in oil and gas revenues in interim accounts published in April. The rise, ascribed to increased prices and production from the Wressle site, gave the company a £1.2m profit for the six months to the end of January 2022, compared with a similar loss for the same period a year before.
Major oil companies also announced big increases in profits: BP doubled profits to $6.2bn; Shell announced a record profit of $9.5bn for the second quarter of the year, a record. Profits in Centrica increased five-fold for the first half of 2022 to £1.3bn.
The COP27 climate talks in Egypt produced a landmark agreement to compensate poorer countries that are the victims of climate change. But there was little progress in tackling emissions from burning fossil fuels, a root cause of global warming.
Throughout the year, there were warnings about the need for stronger measures.
Alok Sharma, chairman of COP26, said promises made at the 2021 Glasgow climate talks would be “just words on a page” without action.
The sixth assessment of climate change impacts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was described as an “atlas of human suffering”.
The UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) backed limits on UK oil and gas production and a presumption against future exploration. In May, it warned about the risks of investing in fracking in the UK. Medical leaders also urged the UK government to end new oil and gas exploration.
The UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, said new fossil fuel investment was “moral and economic madness”. He said emissions must peak in three years to keep global temperature rise to below 1.5C.
In September the NSTA said UK oil and gas production was set to miss its emissions target in 2030.
Support for fracking in the UK increased compared with 2021, driven mainly by older people, according to the annual UK government public attitudes survey. Opposition fell but still exceeded support.
Research by Exeter University found that most people living near two proposed shale gas sites distrusted information from fracking companies.
As in previous years, much of the health research on fracking was carried out in the US.
In April, the Compendium of scientific, medical and media findings demonstrating risks and harms of fracking and associated gas and oil infrastructure concluded that fracking was an environmental injustice where impacts are not felt equally. A study by Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health found that elderly people living near fracking sites had a greater risk of premature death. Research in Pennsylvania found that children born near fracking wells were three times more likely to develop leukaemia.