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Factcheck: why fracking in UK will not reduce your energy bills | Fracking

The political earthquake in Downing Street has delayed publication of a review into the scientific evidence around fracking for shale gas, which had been expected earlier this month.

In the face of an urgent and intensifying energy crisis, that delay can only be bad news – or so the vocal media and political supporters of shale gas development would have you believe. (The Sun has published at least 14 editorials this year calling for UK fracking – one every fortnight.)

Just this week, the Conservative leadership candidate Liz Truss suggested we should lift the UK’s ban on fracking as part of “doing all we can to lower the cost of energy for consumers”. But the case for fracking as a response to the energy crisis is about as solid as the final days of Boris Johnson’s premiership – and we don’t need a scientific review to tell us why.

To start with, the global energy crisis is first and foremost a gas crisis, massively exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. European gas prices have jumped 700% since the start of last year.

With soaring energy bills and inflation overwhelmingly being driven by record-high gas prices – and with renewables four times cheaper – it’s tough to argue that fracking is the answer. Even shale gas executives have not been prepared to claim their industry could cut energy bills.

gas prices graphic

Even if energy security is our overriding concern in the short term, then there must be serious doubts over the potential for shale gas to come to the rescue. UK shale supporters keep saying fracking could make the UK self-sufficient in gas for 50 years – but they conveniently ignore evidence there’s far less gas available.

Scientists from the British Geological Survey (BGS) – which is behind the government review – wrote in a 2019 peer-reviewed paper that the “maximum” amount of shale gas under the UK was 10 times lower than the level usually cited by fracking advocates, which had been estimated by the BGS in 2013.

Moreover, they said the UK’s geology and the depth of its shale deposits made it unlikely we would be able to recover enough to meet even five years of UK gas demand. One of the study’s authors, the University of Nottingham’s Prof Colin Snape, says no one has come up with any scientific objections to their findings since they were published. He adds that the 2013 BGS desk-based study made a “very optimistic interpretation” of US data applied to the UK.

Even if shale supporters are right about how much gas there is, the industry’s lobby group has publicly admitted, in effect, that it would take years for UK fracking to start producing at scale.

For the sake of argument, let’s look at the industry’s best-case scenario for shale gas development in the UK and ignore the likelihood of protest or planning-related delays.

According to that best-case scenario, fracking would not produce enough gas to meet even 1% of UK demand for more than three years. After an immediate start, we would still have to wait until the late 2020s for more than 5% of UK demand to be met by domestically produced shale gas.

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To put this in perspective, the UK spent the decade from 2010 attempting to get a shale gas industry off the ground and failed, despite policy, media and political support from the highest levels. That experiment came to an end with a fracking moratorium in 2019, after a tremor thousands of times more powerful than the limit drawn up and agreed between government and industry.

The problem with UK shale gas as an answer to the energy crisis is that it is too uncertain and too slow to offer rapid respite. In contrast, millions of UK homes could cut their bills by up to £250 a year under this winter’s energy price cap – with no change in comfort – simply by changing a couple of settings on their boiler to reduce the heating “flow temperature” and turn off hot water “pre-heating”.

It’s hard to believe there isn’t a major government-backed effort to inform the public about this easy opportunity to save money – it took me less than a minute to adjust my boiler. Despite expectations the energy price cap will reach about £3,000 for the average household this winter, the government has so far failed to promote efforts to reduce demand.

Yet my analysis, based on figures from the advice service the Heating Hub, suggests UK households could save up to £4bn overall, and also cut demand for gas equivalent to 80% of the volume imported into the country from Russia last year.

Adjusting boiler settings would save households money, cut gas demand, avoid sending money to Russia for gas and cut carbon dioxide emissions – a win-win-win-win. My analysis suggests it could cut carbon emissions by up to 6m tonnes, equivalent to about 8% of the total released by homes in 2021 and equivalent to taking nearly 3m cars off UK roads.

Beyond such immediate options as adjusting boiler settings, there are a range of medium-term options to cut UK gas demand quicker than fracking could boost supply.

As the dust settles on Boris Johnson’s resignation – and while we await the findings of the BGS review on fracking and seismic events – it’s worth recalling the words of Fatih Birol, the executive director of the International Energy Agency: “Lasting solutions to today’s crisis lie in reducing demand via the rapid deployment of renewables, energy efficiency and other low emissions technologies … Nobody should imagine that Russia’s invasion can justify a wave of new large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure in a world that wants to limit global warming to 1.5C.”