Rishi Sunak’s anti-fracking gift to Vladimir Putin
Napoleon is credited with saying “never interfere with an enemy while he is destroying himself”.
This line comes to mind after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s decision last week to reimpose ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracturing. Sunak reversed the policy change made by his predecessor, Liz Truss, who, in one of her first steps in office, repealed the ban on the process which allows drillers to extract oil and gas from shale formations.
Sunak’s fracking ban is a gift for Vladimir Putin and a disaster for British consumers and industry. Indeed, Sunak is handing Britain over to high energy prices and import dependence for decades to come.
Remember, Putin and his cronies helped fund the anti-shale gas propaganda that led seven European countries ban hydraulic fracturing. In 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, then Secretary General of NATO and former Prime Minister of Denmark, said that “Russia, through its sophisticated information and disinformation operations, has actively engaged with the so -so-called non-governmental organizations – environmental organizations working against shale gas – to maintain European dependence on imported Russian gas. In 2016, the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies in Belgium published a report that the Russian government gave about 82 million euros to “NGOs whose job it is to persuade EU governments to stop shale gas exploration”.
Britain imposed a ban on hydraulic fracturing in 2019.
While Friends of the Earth and other NGOs have applauded the ban, the figures show Britain faces a fuelless future. (On its website, Friends of the Earth hailed Sunak’s new ban, calling it “fantastic achievement. In the past two decades, Britain’s domestic natural gas production has declined rapidly. Today, Britain consumes around 7.4 billion cubic feet of gas per day, but produces only around 3.1 billion cubic feet per day. According to the latest figures from BP, UK gas production is at its lowest level since 1973. Without new drilling (and fracking), Britain could be totally dependent on imported natural gas within a decade or two.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from Russia‘s invasion of Ukraine, it’s this: over-reliance on other countries for your energy can leave you and your citizens stranded in times of crisis. This is exactly what is happening today in Britain, which bears the dubious designation of have the highest electricity prices in Europe. Residential consumers in Britain pay around 64 euro cents per kilowatt hour, around twice the European Union average.
Britons are vulnerable to high gas prices because the country has shut down its coal-fired power stations and relies on natural gas generators to produce around 40% of the juice it needs. If you think renewables can fill the void, think again. The past 12 months or so have proven that tying your economy to weather-dependent renewables is a recipe for disaster. Indeed, Europe’s energy crisis began long before Putin invaded Ukraine; prolonged wind droughts have reduced the amount of electricity available on the market and thus forced utilities to burn more natural gas to keep the lights on. Otherwise, rural opposition to onshore wind projects in the UK is fierce.
Even if Britain could expand its use of renewables and increase its use of nuclear power – which it should do, and very quickly – it will still need gas for decades, because around 85% of all households in the country use gas for heating.
Britain has enormous gas resources. The The British Geological Survey estimated that the Bowland-Hodder shale field in northern England contains some 1,329 trillion cubic feet of gas. Assuming a 10% recovery rate, this amount of fuel would be equivalent to 50 years of gas use in the UK. 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 had “beautiful rocks” and the amount of gas in some of the shale fields was almost double the amount in the best shale fields in the United States. But with Sunak’s move, all that energy might as well be on Mars.
Certainly, even if Sunak gave the green light to drilling and fracking, producing significant amounts of gas from Britain’s shale resources would take years. Local governments and landowners should issue permits. Pipelines and processing plants should be built. Roughnecks, roustabouts and rigs should all be imported.
That said, it is important to note that Britain has faced this type of energy crisis before. In 1942, Britain desperately lacked 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 said in the 1973 book, “The Secret of Sherwood Forest“, they drilled over 100 wells and by 1944 they had increased British oil production by 300 barrels per day to over 3,000 barrels per day.
Britain is not at war today, but faces a similar crisis. By reimposing the fracking ban, Sunak is sending a signal to oil and gas drillers and heavy industry that Britain will not use its domestic resources and instead rely on imported energy. Worse still, it does so at the very moment when Britain loses car manufacturing to China and all of Europe is preparing for a long and difficult winter.
Vladimir Putin‘s war against Ukraine is not going as planned. But Sunak’s ban on fracking in Britain must give the Russian strongman a bit of a smile.
Robert Bryce is the host of the “Power hungry podcast“, executive producer of the documentary, “Juice: how electricity explains the world“, and the author of six books, including the most recent, “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.” Follow him on Twitter and TikTok: @pwrhungry.