You have to have a scintilla of sympathy for the shale gas industry. It cannot be easy winning round a sceptical populace when you routinely have to drop the phrase “Richter scale” into public statements. But at least the frackers have been able to count on the support of the British government.
Or at least they thought they could. Of late, even business-minded ministers seem rather lukewarm. The industry is being throttled by regulations which ministers celebrate as the “toughest in the world”, even as insiders admit that the reasons for not easing the rules are more political than scientific.
In other circumstances this might not matter, but time may be running out for the UK’s shale experiment. With the Conservatives the only party not ideologically opposed to fracking and their enthusiasm dimming, the shale gas revolution is petering out. This may be the last government prepared even to support shale gas drilling — and its hold on power is pretty tenuous.
The political landscape offers little hope. The campaign against fossil fuels is gathering momentum. Environmental protests such as the Extinction Rebellion are drawing support and attention. Opinion polls show that green issues are of particular importance, especially to the younger voters whom the Conservatives so desperately need to attract.
Last week it emerged that Ineos, the energy company, had privately warned regulators that it may abandon plans to frack in the UK unless the restrictions on earth tremors are relaxed.
The only major project in England, a Cuadrilla site near Blackpool in Lancashire, is failing because of regulations that require work to cease for 18 hours every time the seismic activity triggered exceeds 0.5. To offer some context: when, in October, a tremor of 1.1 was recorded Claire Perry, the energy minister, described it as “the equivalent on the surface of a bag of flour falling on the floor”. And yet fears of the bag of flour mean that Caudrilla has managed to complete the hydraulic fracture of just two of the 41 sections of the well.
In the US, the Richter scale limit is 4.0 — although admittedly sites are often further from urban areas. But the UK’s limits are also lower than those for coal mining and quarrying. Seismologists are sympathetic to the industry’s calls for a review of the rules. As one official observed, the Blackpool site is “the canary in the coal mine” for the industry. If it is stymied, few others will take up the challenge.
In part, this is down to priorities. Britain’s pro-business forces are focused on Brexit. One senior Tory noted: “It’s one of those things we have to get back to after Brexit, but no one’s in a hurry.”
It is also clear that eyes have turned to other, less troublesome energy sources, especially offshore wind. Ministers no longer talk up the benefits of fracking in the way that David Cameron’s government did. The economic and employment expectations have been scaled back; UK demand for natural gas is down year-on-year; energy prices are not alarming politicians; and the arguments about security of supply have lost some of their salience for the moment.
Even so, gas is likely to remain a big component of Britain’s energy mix for some time. The UK is now a net importer of gas and could, within 15 years, be buying in more than 70 per cent of its supply. But ministers argue that the public concern over fracking means voters expect them to keep faith with the strong controls. The upshot is that they endure opprobrium without the UK enjoying the benefits.
Some of the contenders to take over the Tory leadership, notably Boris Johnson, have historically supported fracking and may be ready to show their free-market credentials with more full-throated support. But the industry would be unwise to count on more than warm words.
There is a broader reason to care. Brexit is changing the trading environment. The UK needs to look open for business as politics and the public have become less amenable to its needs. Businesses will want to know that they have a partner in government who will still be there when the going gets tough.
And it is only going to get tougher. Environmental and other campaign groups are attacking swaths of commerce. Governments wishing to be seen as pro-business will need to pick their fights and then turn up for the battle. The current fracking policy is akin to not having one’s cake and not eating it.
If, as it appears, the government no longer has the stomach to fight for fracking, it would do better to signal as much rather than continue with halfhearted support, which satisfies no one and delivers nothing.