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expert reaction to arguments about fracking for UK energy security

There has been recent debate and media discussion about the use of fracking in the UK and its role in the UK’s short and long term energy security.


Prof Jon Gluyas, Director of the Durham Energy Institute, Durham University, said:

“Can fracking for shale gas alleviate the UK’s energy supply crisis?  No!  Much has been made of the amount of gas trapped deep underground within the UK’s shale formations and sure enough if you dig up a piece of the appropriate shale and heat it in an oven, methane, the same stuff as we get piped to our house for gas boilers and gas stoves, will be released.  The resource is indeed huge but the reserve – that which can be won by drilling and fracking is tiny and indeed to date the proven commercial reserve for the UK is zero.  We have, to put it bluntly the wrong kind of shale.  ‘Crispy’ shale, that which is brittle and rich in silica is what is needed for fracking to be successful and most UK shale is especially rich in malleable clays that won’t hold a fracture well.  We also have the wrong kind of geology, small geological basins rather than vast tracts of identical geology and our island is too crowded to get in the thousands of wells to sustain a shale-gas industry.  Even if shale-gas could be won, the time to delivery of first gas would be measured in a handful of years at best, not the weeks and months to solve the immediate energy crisis.  And abundant gas alone would not do anything to reduce petrol or heating-oil prices.

“Can we fix our immediate energy crisis? Probably, but it means maintaining our reliance on fossil fuels and on other nations or groups of nations.  OPEC members could increase production in the short term increase oil production and an increase in shipments of LNG from the USA, Qatar and elsewhere could alleviate the squeeze on gas supply for power generation, domestic and industrial consumers.  That though comes at a cost measured both in pounds sterling and the increased carbon footprint of LNG over gas supplied as gas.

“Can we fix our energy crisis in the mid-term?  Certainly, but it means developing a route map that delivers secure energy supplies, affordable energy supplies and sustainable zero to low-carbon energy supplies. Recent history demonstrates that UK governments have singularly failed to develop credible plans, believing instead that market forces will keep us warm and bathed in light.  The UK has substantial resources, low grade, ultra-low-carbon geothermal heat could displace gas, coal and oil from our heating permanently.  Offshore, we abandon oilfields with on average 60% of the original oil volume remaining in place.  Economically spent at low oil prices, such fields could be rejuvenated.  This has been proven to be viable.  So too with our gas fields, many of which are not at their technical end-of-life, rejuvenation is perfectly possible and the undeveloped discoveries in the Southern North Sea are counted in tens of fields.  Gas to wire in the Southern North Sea could see us delivering electricity to shore even when the wind does not blow.  And with carbon capture and storage about to be undertaken (at last) we can ensure that use of these fossil fuels need not cost us the Earth.  Offshore and onshore wind could be added as could more arrays of photovoltaic cell-powered solar farms.  The UK lacks energy storage in any serious quantities but it can be built for hydrogen, electricity, heat and more.  Finally let us not forget our housing stock, too little of which is ft for purpose in terms of frugal use of energy.  Retro-fit insulation works but better still make our new houses the best they can be to retain heat.  The list above does not attempt to be fully comprehensive and there are other technologies that will come into play if encouraged and supported by government.

“In energy policy terms we failed to plan and this effectively planned to fail.  It’s time to change that and, in accordance with the promises made at COP26 just a few months ago, deliver a credible and workable plan for both the short term energy crisis solution and delivering net zero.”


Prof Stuart Haszeldine, from the School of GeoSciences at the University of Edinburgh, said:

  • “An inconvenient fact – like it or not, the UK has not discovered any good shale for onshore gas production. 

  • There isn’t much gas.   The most important new evidence to emerge since Cuadrilla gave up on its Lancashire boreholes has been to analyse gas production from real rock samples.    This shows that the measured gas in place is very small – 15 times less than the original theoretical estimates.  

  • The gas is hard to extract.   The total gas produced by Cuadrilla from Lancashire could be enough to provide heating and water to 508 3-bed semi-detached houses for 18 days.  Not much to show after spending 8 years and tens of millions of pounds

  • Earthquakes happen.  The reason fracking became public was because the residents living around the drill sites noticed earthquakes under their houses, and didn’t like it. Another 8 years of work showed that more expensive and complicated boreholes could be drilled – and still caused earthquakes of increasing energy which cannot be predicted accurately.

  • The UK is not the USA. Our UK geology is complicated, full of pre-existing faults, and our UK shales are old and have already lost their gas. In USA the local landowners get paid a share of the produced gas value. In the UK, the local residents get nothing except worry, inconvenience, and the chance of contaminated air and groundwater

  •  Abandonment is expensive Government proposals to give the abandoned Cuadrilla boreholes to the British Geological Survey transfers the multiple millions of pounds of clean-up liability to a public-funded research organisation.  Will clean-up of abandoned boreholes from all the other shale gas companies be subsidised as well?

  • The UK has no drillers or drill rigs.  To have any impact at all on gas production, the UK would need to drill many hundreds of shale boreholes every year for the next 10 years. Complicated drilling equipment is needed, with very specialist equipment to engineer super-high pressures underground, with highly skilled crews. The UK no longer has this special kit or skills.”


Prof Andrew Aplin, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, said:

“Risks associated with fracking in the UK are manageable within a strict regulatory framework. But shale gas would only make a significant dent to UK imports if, over the next few years, thousands of successful wells are drilled at hundreds of sites across northern England. This isn’t realistic so shale cannot make a material difference to our energy supply over the next few years – even with public approval for fracking.

“There are very limited data about UK shale gas reserves so we can only speculate about the amount of gas that might be recovered commercially. But even with successful exploration over the next decade, potential gas production from thousands of wells would not change the price we pay for gas – and would be highly inconsistent with the government’s recently published and urgent net zero strategy”.


Dr Stuart Gilfillan, Senior Lecturer in Geochemistry at the University of Edinburgh, said:

“The key issue of how waste fluids produced by hydraulic fracturing in the UK will be safely managed has yet to be adequately addressed, as it is currently not clear if wastewater injection wells will be permitted. Such wells have caused seismic activity in the United States, and without these disposal wells it is highly probable that these waste fluids from shale gas wells will need to be treated and safely disposed of at specialist treatment facilities, which research at the University of Edinburgh has shown are currently limited. This could pose serious waste management issues if the shale gas industry expands without a corresponding increase in the capacity of treatment facilities. This work also found that treating wastewater could require a large outlay of the expected revenue from each well, affecting industry profitability.

“In late 2017, we suggested that industry, wastewater treatment plant operators and UK regulatory bodies work together to produce a coherent strategy for managing wastewater from shale gas exploitation in the UK. This would serve to assure the public of its safety and prepare for the expansion of treatment capacity required should a shale gas industry develop in the UK. To the best of our knowledge this strategy has yet to be developed and hence the treatment and disposal of wastewater still poses a major barrier to the development of a UK shale gas industry.”


Two experts are quoted here:

RD is Prof Richard Davies, petroleum geologist and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Engagement and Internationalisation) at Newcastle University

QF is Prof Quentin Fisher, Professor of Petroleum Geoengineering at the University of Leeds

  • What is the impact of fracking on the surrounding environment?  How would it impact those living near a site if current technology is used? 

RD: ‘Fracking can cause earthquakes – but not big ones. Before fracking in the UK, between 1970 and 2012 at least ~21% of UK earthquakes bigger than 1.5 in scale were man-made.’

QF: ‘Impacts on the local environment from fracking itself are minimal. Some are worried about groundwater contamination, but this is a complete myth. There could be minor seismicity but despite over 2 million frackjobs being completed around the world there have been no injuries or significant damage to housing caused by these low magnitude events. For those living around sites there will be an increase in traffic while constructing the well pad and drilling the wells after which the site can be returned to the way that it was found with a small well head. Potentially the biggest impact is the influx of protesters, which tend to cause disruption and mess.’

  • Could fracking harm net zero efforts?  Could fracking impact pollution levels?  Are our fracking reserves big enough to risk any negative effects from fracking?

RD: ‘There are no fracking reserves.  Only theoretical resources. Putting the misuse of the term ‘reserve’ to one side, yes shale gas exploitation could cause pollution. The production test at Preston New Road in 2019 led to methane entering the atmosphere.’

QF: ‘If the gas simply replaces imports, it could reduce GHG emissions as there is a considerable energy requirement to compress and transport gas. There would not be an increase in pollution levels except that caused by increase in traffic during pad construction and drilling. It is virtually impossible to accurately estimate reserves without drilling and hydraulically fracturing several wells.’

  • Is fracking feasible in the UK?  Can they overcome earthquake risks, water risks etc?  Could the UK become the new Texas?

RD: Yes feasible, but not proven after a decade of trying. It’s completely unrealistic for politicians to think this will make a big dent in the costs of gas or our reliance on imports.

QF: It is feasible to conduct fracking in the U.K but it won’t become another Texas due to the higher population density. There are no issues regarding groundwater contamination. Earth tremors will always occur but these will be small and are not likely to damage property. 

  • How much gas could feasibly be extracted?  There seem to be figures for huge reserve amounts but little clarity on how much of this could realistically be extracted.

RD: ‘Nobody knows how much gas could be extracted.  Only the rocks know.  Even the operators don’t know.  Anyone who claims to know is guessing.  We may need 10s, perhaps 100s of wells to reduce uncertainty.’

QF: One really needs to drill and fracture several wells to get an idea of gas volumes in place and recovery factors. 

  • Is there any guidance on what seismic effects could be expected if it were to go ahead?  Previously the operations had to stop at 0.5 magnitude so would that have to be increased significantly for any fracking to go ahead?

RD: ‘The 0.5 would need to be increased. Fracking was stop-start because of this low limit and the all-important production tests to see if the gas would flow were interrupted – so we still don’ know if gas would flow at rates that make money for operators.’

QF: The magnitude of 0.5 is too low and should be increased. It should be remembered that having such a low limit would also significantly impact the development of NetZero technologies such as geothermal, CCS, and energy storage if it were to be applied across the board. 




All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:


Declared interests

Prof Aplin: has in the past received funding from the oil and gas industry.

Dr Gilfillan: has received funding from TotalEnergies Exploration and Production to assess reservoir connectivity in a North Sea hydrocarbon discovery and determine the origin of CO2 in unconventional gases in Argentina. He has received funding from the Scottish Government, EPSRC, NERC and the EU in undertaking research to reduce the environmental footprint of shale gas development, through investigation into wastewater management and determining the geochemical fingerprints of UK unconventional gases.

Prof Fisher: “I conduct consultancy and research for the petroleum industry but not for the companies who have shale gas licenses in the U.K.” 

Prof Davies:

  1. I worked for ExxonMobil 1995-2003
  2. The ReFINE (Research Fracking in Europe) research project that I led was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (UK), Total, Shell, Chevron, GDF Suez, Centrica and Ineos.  We no longer have any funders.
  3. I now lead a NERC-ESRC project within the Unconventional Hydrocarbons in the UK Energy System (UKUH) programme

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