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How permanent is the UK’s ban on fracking?

We said in our last edition of Rethink Energy that climate change and environmental policy would come to the forefront of the UK’s snap election, and with fracking in the hot seat, this is already proving to be the case.

The Conservative-led government has called for an immediate suspension of fracking, but its focus has been on earthquake activity and not climate change. The ban, already initiated in Scotland, will now be extended to England, for an indefinite period “until and unless” shale gas extraction is proved to be safe. It looks possible that the ban may be short term, but the government reinstating fracking will face significant public opposition.

The moratorium follows a study published by the Oil and Gas Authority indicating that it was not possible to predict the probability or size of tremors caused by fracking at Cuadrilla’s operations at the Preston New Road site, with a 2.9 magnitude earthquake causing a temporary suspension of fracking in August.

The most notable thing about the suspension is not its reinstatement, but the fact that it has fallen short of meeting the permanent ban proposed by other UK parties, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party all including this in manifestos for the snap election in December this year.

This could be seen as a move by the conservative party to nullify opposition party policies: if fracking conveniently doesn’t exist at the time of the election, then people are less likely to care about the ban. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was quick to refer to the ban as a hollow election stunt, accusing the Conservatives of “greenwashing”. He may be right.

While the move is just one among a wave of policies hitting the media, addressing fracking is likely to pull few voters either way. A recent YouGov poll indicated that only 14% of Britons viewed Shale gas as a favorable source of power, placing it behind Coal (20%) as the least popular form of energy production in the UK.

As we often highlight at Rethink, the worst impacts of fracking are often overlooked. Pioneering research from Cornell University has highlighted that the rapid rise in methane levels in the atmosphere, a gas which is more effective at causing global warming than CO2, can be attributed to fracking, NOT the burping of cows on which it had previously been blamed.

This research seriously calls into question how damaging using natural gas may be as an intermediary source of fuel through the transition to renewables, with vast levels of upstream emissions often going unreported, making gas potentially worse for climate change than coal. If this research gains traction with the public, the opposition of fracking will inevitably rise to new heights.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has historically been a supporter of fracking, publishing an article in the UK Telegraph in 2012 entitled “Ignore the doom merchants, Britain should get fracking”, promoting gas as a secure source of energy for the UK. His party’s stance has seemingly not moved far despite the ban, with Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom saying on the Radio this week “It’s a disappointment but we’ve already been clear that we will follow the science” but maintaining that shale gas is a “huge opportunity for the UK”.

While this may suggest that the ban will only be temporary in the eyes of the British government, rising public objections will not allow the suspension to be overturned without a fuss, and the momentum of the fracking ban will make it hard to reopen the Cuadrilla facility.

Fracking bans are starting to become commonplace worldwide, with countries including Ireland, France and Bulgaria, as well as several US states all recently halting the practice. If the UK changes its mind again, and overturns the ban however, it will not be the first place to do so, with laws revoked in Colorado in 2016.

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