Europe’s energy crisis is reviving the fracking industry

Credit: Cuadrilla
The controversial Cuadrilla fracking site in Lancashire, England.

This piece was published prior to Liz Truss becoming the new UK Prime Minister on Tuesday 6 September. On Thursday, Truss lifted the ban on shale gas fracking.

Susan Holliday witnessed the rise and fall of British shale gas directly from her living room window. After years of protests and legal battles, the UK’s last operable fracking site sits idle a few hundred metres from her home in the village of Little Plumpton in north-west England.

When she moved to this rural corner of Lancashire in 2007, Holliday expected to enjoy a peaceful retirement with her husband. But in 2017, she saw the green field opposite her house on Preston New Road disappear under a drilling rig and a flare stack. 

Then her nightmare began: between 2018 and 2019, fracking exploration triggered hundreds of small earthquakes in the region, while trucks, police cars and campaigners amassed around the corner.

The strongest tremor, 2.9 on the Richter scale, shook the ground almost exactly three years ago. It was so intense that the government decided to halt all hydraulic fracturing after more than a decade of failed attempts.

“It happened on the August bank holiday morning,” remembers Holliday. “We were in our kitchen and we could hear all the pots, glasses and china rattling in the cupboards, it was quite frightening.”

Fracking is a controversial extraction technique that involves injecting a high-pressure cocktail of water and chemicals into the ground to release gas back to the surface. The process can induce earthquakes but also severely harm human health and the environment. 

Recent reports show that it exposes nearby population to risks of severe diseases, including leukaemia among children, and a 2019 study found that “shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally.”

Due to environmental and geological concerns, European countries banned fracking one after the other: France in 2011, Denmark and Bulgaria in 2012, the Netherlands in 2015 and Germany in 2017. Others, like Norway and Sweden, declared it not economically viable, and in Poland, where a lot of exploration was carried out, energy companies threw in the towel citing disappointing drilling results.

Following the 2019 tremor in Lancashire, the UK also decided to impose a moratorium on the activity, until there is new evidence that it can be done safely. 

Credit: Investigate Europe

War in Ukraine renews fracking debate

Yet, it isn’t a scientific breakthrough that brought shale gas back into the spotlight. In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s gas supplies to Europe have plummeted by 75%. While Europeans face spiralling energy bills as a result, some politicians and energy bosses want to give fracking another go to recover the estimated 14 trillion cubic metres of shale gas buried in the continent’s ground. 

In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned a report in April into whether the ban should be lifted. Its conclusions haven’t been shared yet, as a new Conservative Party leader will take office in September. But a government spokesperson told Investigate Europe that all options were on the table since the country would still need gas for many decades to come. 

Meanwhile, both candidates for the job, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have publicly endorsed fracking and tax breaks could even benefit the industry in a bid to encourage fresh fossil fuel explorations to alleviate the energy crunch.

In Berlin too, the shale gas lobby has found allies among pro-market lawmakers. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) has become its best advocate in the government’s coalition. As the German economy was heavily reliant on Putin’s gas, the war broke a taboo about the ban. 

“We could increase our energy sovereignty with shale gas production in Germany, instead of importing fracked gas from the US and other countries,” Michael Kruse, a Bundestag member for the FDP, tells IE.

One of Europe’s main answers to the shortfall of Russian supplies was to triple American imports. A domestic production, Kruse suggests, would be 20% cleaner than ferrying gas across the Atlantic.

However, the FDP could end up on a collision course with its government partners, who don’t all share the same enthusiasm about fossil fuels. The Green Party’s Ingrid Nestle warns that the coalition’s pledge to reach net-zero by 2045 would be at risk if such projects are approved. “Investments in new fracking wells, which investors would then want to use for many years, make it more difficult to achieve these climate goals,” she tells IE.

A polluting false solution

What’s more, many scientists and activists agree that fracking wouldn’t bring quick relief and could also be a significant source of global warming.

“It can’t be a fix to the energy crisis in the short-term,” Professor Charlotte Krawczyk tells IE. As head of the fracking expert commission advising the Bundestag, Krawczyk has been following the science closely.

“It would take approximately three years before we could start to frack,” she estimates. “We would need to change water laws, let companies apply for concessions, involve all public and non-governmental bodies…”

Credit: Investigate Europe

Since Germany is much more densely populated than the US, Krawczyk insists that wells should keep clear from key infrastructures and seismic areas, while strong additional monitoring would be required for water pollution and methane. 

Methane, which can leak in large amounts from drills, is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Reducing its emissions was a central promise of Glasgow’s COP26 where more than 100 nations, including the EU, agreed to slash them by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030.

According to the International Energy Agency, there should be no new fossil fuel projects anywhere on the planet if the world is to reach net zero by 2050.

If Europe was to follow in the footsteps of the US and allow extraction, it would inevitably miss its environmental goals, claims Andy Gheorghiu, an anti-fracking activist from North-Hesse in Germany.

“It’s bonkers, we can’t simply ignore what is unfolding around us,” he tells IE. “Gas has a severe impact on climate change so we’ll need to get off it in the next few years.” 

One incident that happened in England in January 2019 gives an idea of how exploiting European shale gas at scale could further warm the planet.

In the space of just one week, the Preston New Road site accidentally let off 4.2 tonnes of methane into the atmosphere when engineers failed to ignite its flare stack. The discharge, equivalent to the emissions of 142 transatlantic flights, was recorded by a team of researchers led by Professor Grant Allen of the University of Manchester.

According to Allen, expanding fracking in the UK could become a significant contributor to global warming, as CO2 would be released under normal conditions and methane could leak during incidents.

“Fracking wouldn’t be consistent with our net-zero objectives and we should be pursuing renewables rather than enabling a new fossil fuel industry,” Allen tells IE, stressing that using shale gas as “a bridge fuel” would only delay decarbonisation.

Hungary’s ready to frack

Recent polls estimated that only 27% of Germans and Brits would support fracking. But while leaders in Berlin and London are still debating the issue, Hungary discreetly gave the go-ahead for its own extraction plans.

Over the summer, Viktor Orbán’s cabinet announced a package to ramp up domestic gas production and mitigate “the effects of the energy crisis caused by the prolonged war and Brussels’ misguided sanctions.”

A key part of the strategy is to frack the gas field of Nyékpuszta, in the eastern Békés region. The project is now labelled a “high-priority investment” with fast-track approval, and Budapest hopes production could start in January 2023.

“Our great plains are already becoming a desert,” Alexa Botar from campaign group Friend of the Earth tells IE. “This is a thermal area where people make a living from tourism, fishing and agriculture. I fear there could be high risks of water contamination.”

Botar regrets that the decision was taken during the holidays and accuses Orbán of sacrificing small villages with false promises of prosperity.

Activists and industry are bracing in Britain 

In the meantime, the Preston New Road site in Lancashire received an eleventh-hour reprieve before the next government decides the moratorium’s fate.

Cuadrilla Resources, the firm that owns the wells outside Susan Holliday’s house, will no longer have to plug them this summer, despite receiving a previous order to do so. Local authorities also agreed that no new environmental impact assessment would be needed if operations resumed.

In a statement sent to IE, Cuadrilla’s CEO Francis Eagan said: “There are trillions of cubic metres of shale gas under our feet, here in Britain, just waiting to be tapped into and used by British households. If we were allowed to get at it we could ensure that Britain has energy security for decades.”

Eagan suggests dividends amounting to around £285 million (€335 million) per project could be handed to local communities.

Credit: Maxence Peigné
Claire Stephenson from activist group Frack Free Lancashire.

“It’s just bribery, you can’t buy good health and peace of mind,” Holliday rebuffs, adding that residents would oppose the company as they did before.

One seasoned activist who would be ready to pick up the fight again is Claire Stephenson. Outside the gates of Cuadrilla’s dormant facility, the member of Frack Free Lancashire tells IE that she’d be mortified if the site was to reopen.

“It’s hard to remain positive, I find it sickening that people have used the Ukraine crisis, as a stepping stone to get fracking back on the agenda,” Stephenson says. Cuadrilla’s multiple attempts to frack Preston New Road have all failed, she argues: “They’ve been pouring money down a dirty hole and haven’t extracted enough gas to light up a barbecue, let alone power a community.”

As a winter energy crisis looms over Europe and the war in Ukraine emboldens pro-fracking voices, residents in this rural stretch of England are braced for another battle over the future of their land.

Contributions by Nico Schmidt and Attila Kálmán.