November 2, 2022
Napoleon is credited with saying “never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.”
That line comes to mind after last week’s decision by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to reimpose a ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Sunak reversed the policy change made by his predecessor, Liz Truss, who, in one of her first moves in office, repealed the ban on the process that allows drillers to extract oil and gas from shale formations.
Sunak’s fracking ban is a gift to Vladimir Putin and a disaster for British consumers and industry. Indeed, Sunak is consigning Britain to high energy prices and dependence on imports for decades to come.
Remember, Putin and his cronies helped fund the anti-shale-gas propaganda that led seven European countries to ban fracking. In 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then secretary-general of NATO and former prime minister of Denmark, said that “Russia, as part of their sophisticated information and disinformation operations, engaged actively with so-called non-governmental organizations — environmental organizations working against shale gas — to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas.” In 2016, the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Belgium published a report that found the Russian government gave about 82 million Euros to “NGOs whose job is to persuade EU governments to stop shale-gas exploration.”
Britain imposed a ban on fracking in 2019.
While Friends of the Earth and other NGOs cheered that ban, the numbers show that Britain is facing a fuel-starved future. (On its website, Friends of the Earth lauded Sunak’s new ban, calling it a “fantastic achievement.”) Over the past two decades, Britain’s domestic natural gas production has declined rapidly. Today, Britain consumes about 7.4 billion cubic feet of gas per day, but produces only about 3.1 Bcf/d. According to the latest numbers from BP, Britain’s gas production is at its lowest level since 1973. Without new drilling (and fracking), Britain could be totally reliant on imported natural gas within a decade or two.
If there’s one lesson to be learned from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s this: Depending too heavily on other countries for your energy can leave you and your citizens stranded during times of crisis. That’s exactly what is happening today in Britain, which has the dubious designation of having the highest electricity prices in Europe. Residential consumers in Britain are paying about 64 Euro cents per kilowatt-hour — about two times the average in the European Union.
Brits are vulnerable to high gas prices because the country has shuttered its coal-fired power plants and depends on natural gas-fired generators to produce about 40 percent of the juice it needs. If you think renewables can fill the gap, think again. The last 12 months or so have proven that tying your economy to weather-dependent renewables is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, Europe’s energy crisis started long before Putin invaded Ukraine; prolonged wind droughts reduced the amount of electricity available in the market and thus forced utilities to burn more natural gas to keep the lights on. Furthermore, rural opposition to onshore wind projects in the U.K. is ferocious.
Even if Britain could expand its use of renewables and grow its use of nuclear energy — which it should do, and right quick — it will still need gas for decades to come, since about 85 percent of all homes in the country use gas for heating.
Britain has huge gas resources. The British Geological Survey has estimated that the Bowland-Hodder shale deposit in northern England contains some 1,329 trillion cubic feet of gas. Assuming a recovery rate of 10 percent, that quantity of fuel would amount to 50 years of U.K. gas use. A few months ago, I spoke to a Texas-based industry veteran who is familiar with Britain’s geology and shale-gas potential. He said Britain has “beautiful rock” and that the amount of gas in some of the shale deposits is almost double the amount contained in the best shale fields in the U.S. But with Sunak’s move, all of that energy might as well be on Mars.
To be sure, even if Sunak greenlighted drilling and fracking, producing significant amounts of gas from Britain’s shale resources would take years. Local governments and landowners would have to issue permits. Pipelines and processing plants would have to be built. Roughnecks, roustabouts and drilling rigs would all have to be imported.
That said, it’s important to note that Britain has faced this type of energy crisis before. Back in 1942, Britain was desperately short of hydrocarbons. German bombers were destroying Britain’s industrial base and the country needed more oil. To help alleviate the situation, several dozen oilfield workers from Ardmore, Okla., were recruited to apply their skills in Britain, where they secretly began drilling wells in Sherwood Forest. As told in the 1973 book, “The Secret of Sherwood Forest,” they drilled more than 100 wells and by 1944, they had increased Britain’s oil production from 300 barrels per day to more than 3,000 barrels per day.
Britain isn’t at war today but it faces a similar crisis. By reimposing the ban on fracking, Sunak is sending a signal to oil and gas drillers and heavy industry that Britain will not use its domestic resources and instead will rely on imported energy. Making matters worse, he’s doing it at the very moment that Britain is losing automobile manufacturing to China and all of Europe is preparing for a long and difficult winter.
Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine is not going according to plan. But Sunak’s ban on fracking in Britain must be giving the Russian strongman a bit of a smile.
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